Local foods: Go figure.
Driven by a renewed interest in food grown close to home, support for local farmers, cutting the number of "food miles," protecting the environment, concerns for food safety and the hunt for high-quality foods, the number of farmers markets grew 180 percent between 2007 and 2014, USDA says, to a total 8,268 farmers markets in the United States last year. The new, and controversial, Dietary Guidelines Advisory Report cautiously endorses them, citing two studies and noting, "Despite...variability, a consistent relationship was identified between farmers’ markets/produce stands and dietary intake."
With market momentum like that, backed by regional branding campaigns and local food-policy lobbying, it's little wonder consumers express the glowing endorsement for farmers markets identified by a Canadian study scheduled for publication in an upcoming issue of the journal Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems.
Farmers markets are thus "almost universally regarded and promoted as mechanisms to deliver fresh fruits and vegetables to areas lacking access," writes Bronx Montefiore Medical Center's Sean Lucan, lead author of another study scheduled for publication in the journal Appetite. Even the editorial board of the McCook Gazette, arguing in favor of permitting Nebraska farmers markets to offer prepared foods in their wares, editorialized, "Government shouldn't get in the way of people who want to create a closer connection between consumers and those who provide the food they consume."
But what if promoting farmers markets actually does that very thing?
Lucan's research set out to actually overcome the "surprisingly little research," he says, on how accessible farmers markets really are to their customers, as well as what they really sell and, most importantly, how they compare to neighboring stores in terms of variety, quality and price.
The study's investigators conducted a detailed cross-sectional assessment of every open-air, local farmers market in the Bronx, comparing them against nearby traditional stores. Results of the 26 farmers markets and 44 food stores studied showed some surprises:
All-in-all, Lucan acknowledges, "Although farmers markets might increase access to organic produce, and produce that is fresher, their lower accessibility, restricted variety and higher cost might provide little net benefit to food environments in urban communities, especially when so much of their inventory is refined and processed non-produce fare."
Standing on the shoulders of a blistering 6,000-word "expose" alleging widespread animal abuse in the service of ugly profit at Nebraska's Meat Animal Research Center at Clay Center, the New York Times teed up its perennial factory-farm metaphor and unloaded on America's "industrialized" animal farmers in a follow-up editorial last week:
"'Local food' or 'regional food,'" says the Lyons-based Center for Rural Affairs, "have no precise definitions.... Some consider 'local' to describe food from a 50-mile or 100-mile distance from where it is sold. Others say a one-hour drive from the market or other place where sold. Thus, it is important to define what is meant by 'local' when using the term in food marketing or sales."
That kind of dwelling on the simple logistics of local, or "food-miles," according to authors of a recent review of the subject in the journal Agriculture and Human Values, is too narrow. Defining local as simply the number of miles food travels creates a "local trap"--a sustainability red herring that ultimately interferes with the real goals of the new food movement. Instead, according to these University of California professors, "...we need to acknowledge the complexity of the issue, cognitively and behaviorally and institutionally, and participate more in the public dialog about alternative local food to help move the discussion toward enabling change."
"Everybody knows" bringing back the home-cooked meal as an important part of the solution to American's nutrition-related health problems. Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert proclaimed the last week of October Family Dining Week in that city, citing studies showing children who eat at home try more new foods and eat better and asking families to pledge to keep their kids around the dinner table. Meanwhile, the food-focused Dining section of the New York Times, for instance, last month published its own "home-cooking manifesto," advising readers to, "Just cook. Just cook dinner. It is a habit as easy to form as a bad one, and more beneficial by far."
Not so fast there, Betty Crocker, says a trio of North Carolina sociology professors.
They argue in the Summer issue of the American Sociological Association's journal Contexts that this infatuation with the family meal is romanticized, unreal, even elitist and moralistic myth-making. It is so stressful to working mothers, particularly poor working mothers, as to be, in the words of the headline on the Slate story reporting their work, a "tyranny."
"The vision of the family meal that today’s food experts are whipping up is alluring," write sociologists Sarah Bowen, Sinikka Elliott, and Joslyn Brenton. "Most people would agree that it would be nice to slow down, eat healthfully, and enjoy a home-cooked meal. However, our research leads us to question why the frontline in reforming the food system has to be in someone’s kitchen. The emphasis on home cooking ignores the time pressures, financial constraints, and feeding challenges that shape the family meal. Yet this is the widely promoted standard to which all mothers are held."
The research team spent 1.5 years interviewing 150 black, white and Latina mothers, including more than 250 hours actually observing 12 working-class and poor families in their homes as they prepared and ate meals, shopped their local grocery store and carted children to medical check-ups--that is, "sitting around the kitchen table and getting a feel for these women’s lives," as the authors phrased it.
The result, they argue, is far from a call for more dinner time. U.S. mothers are buying into society's message that “home-cooked meals have become the hallmark of good mothering, stable families, and the ideal of the healthy, productive citizen.” The problem, they argue, is that most can't scrape together the time, money or capability to meet those unrealistic expectations. Torn by often unpredictable, service-industry work schedules, poor mothers often face schedule conflicts with a traditional evening meal. Even the middle-class women, they suggest, are "overwhelmed" by the competing demands on their time in trying to get dinner on the table every evening.
Leaving aside whether the authors' conclusions are valid based on their research, the family-meal focus still presents opportunities for grocers to present solutions:
Be the home-cooking educator. One point emerges from the Contexts study: The problem with home cooking is as often about education and capability as it is about money. "We observed homes without kitchen tables or functional appliances," the trio writes, "...lacking basic kitchen...." Similarly, they write: "And, of course, cooking isn’t just about the time it takes to prepare the meal. It also involves planning ahead to be sure the ingredients are on hand, and it means cleaning up afterwards. Samantha, a single white mother of three, was blunt when we asked her if she liked cooking. 'Not really,' she said. 'I just hate the kitchen…having to come up with a meal and put it together.... If it was up to me, I wouldn't cook.'"
Grocers, whether by themselves or in cooparation with public and private partnerships, are in a perfect position to help shoppers learn the often simple, but daunting, meal planning, pre-prep, cooking, clean-up, storage and re-use skills that have gone dormant in today's society.
Challenge the economics. The North Carolina study challenges one of the notions held dear by today's new-food-movement advocate: The mothers they interviewed who were barely paying the bills were in fact routinely cooking--not feeding their families fast food. And they reported they cooked because they perceived it as cheaper than eating out. That positive message offers opportunity for supermarkets to take back the conversation about their role in healthy, economical family meals.
Meanwhile, the middle-class women the interviewers investigated voiced another economic paradox. They, too, expressed concern about not having enough money to cook healthy home-cooked meals, but they expressed it in terms of not having the financial wherewithall to buy they foods they perceived as healthier: particularly organic and fresh produce. Issues about relative profitability of those categories for the grocer aside, middle-class mothers who feel priced out of home cooking because they "can only afford" conventional produce and meat, or frozen and canned fruits and vegetables as opposed to fresh, should be seen as an opportunity to educate on the real health benefits of each of those food categories.
Offer creative short cuts. The researchers noted many of the women talked about experimenting with different means of cutting time and effort from the home-cooking process, like make-ahead meals, assembling meals from processed items as opposed to true cooking from scratch, using slow cookers and finding ways to get their children involved in meal prep. All should offer the grocer with his ear to the ground opportunities to present his store as the solutions center.
Give subtle support. One point you can agree with the North Carolina researchers on: A number of sociological issues arise behind the simple focus on family mealtime. Today's quest for authentic food from authentic farmers mirrors a wider need which cultural historians have identified to find roots in a rootless society. Since the 1970s, both academics and the affluent, suburban culture they tend to spring from have taken a wider interest in taste, craft, health, status and authenticity, observes food historian Warren Belasco, an authority on how '60s radicals tried to change the food system. From The Waltons to Joel Salatan, Aunt Jemima to Michael Pollan, the hunger to rediscover authentic "connections between eating and the land" has driven a new generation to distraction looking for validation in their food decisions. Women of all socio-economic classes appear to not be immune to that attraction. If, as the study authors write, "...being poor makes it nearly impossible to enact the foodie version of a home-cooked meal," then the solution should be less about passing up that meal as it is about injecting some reality into the romantized notion of the foodie meal.
You’ve seen the headlines:
As Farmer Goes to Market has cautioned before, much of the mainstream media, including the traditional grocery retail trade press, often rely on “willingness to pay” predictions like those to urge grocery retailers to stock such items lest they miss out on increased sales or margin opportunities. Yet they often miss the one important, obvious question: How well does that kind of research predict you can actually depend on shoppers to follow through on that promise?
Says Oklahoma State ag economist Jayson Lusk, who has studied the structure and reliability of willingness to pay studies for more than a decade, “Among the staunchest criticisms…is the fact that people tend to overstate the amount they are willing to pay for improvements in a public good or an increase in quality of a private good.” The research evidence is widespread, he says, for this “hypothetical bias”—the idea that talk is cheap when study subjects don’t actually have to sacrifice anything to get what they say they would hypothetically like to have.
Now, a new study published in the journal Agricultural Economics continues to add evidence that current studies on willingness to pay values do not put enough attention on considering psychological effects when people promise to pay more for such foods--in this case, organic foods. Past studies have predicted the willingness to pay values for organic food range wildly, from a low of around 2 percent to a high of more than 500 percent.
This Agricultural Economics study enrolled 233 college students from an agricultural university in China, where values for organic food run about 130 percent of conventional foods on average in the cities, in order to test whether those students’ willingness to pay could be manipulated by how the test was structured.
The researchers tested two potentially confounding factors. First, they rushed the study subjects to make their decision on how high a premium they would pay for organic pork, tomatoes and milk by giving them varying levels of limited time to complete the questionnaire. Second, they forced them to distraction while asking them the sets of questions regarding their willingness to pay by requiring them to complete simple math problems simultaneously.
The study authors found that although there were no significant differences in the subjects' stated willingness to pay when they were put under time pressure to make a decision, there was strong evidence that willingness to pay can be easily influenced by mental distractions while making a decision. The set of students forced to distraction by the math calculations decreased their willingness to pay by 5.5 percent for organic meat, 6.4 percent for organic tomatoes and 34.1 percent for organic milk.
What’s it mean? Past psychological work has shown people quickly and predictably lose self-control when they face such so-called “cognitive load.” That is, when our brains are overworked, we lose abilty to focus concentration on a single task. When that overload occurs, people typically default from making decisions based on motives shaped by social norms, tangible rewards and rational thought, toward making decisions based on preferences that evolved gradually through early learning and experience. In this case, the researchers theorized that willingness to pay for organic food can be shifted in the same way when consumers are distracted. In China, they write, such "implicit" motives may be particularly powerful because many consumers' underlying "implicit" beliefs about their food evolved at a time when widespread hunger and malnutrition posed a real and constant threat. In contrast, acceptance of organic food, which many researchers have identified as associated with social status and wealth, requires conscious and purposeful decision-making.
At the least, this latest study should remind us that willingness to pay research can be manipulated or biased and that the confounding factors should always be considered when interpreting the results, the authors write.