Navigating the New Food Movement

The New Food Movement

Navigating the New Food Movement: The grocer says, take two fruit salads and call me in the morning

Prescribing vegetables and fruits for better health

Research has shown that more than half of shoppers who come in to fill a prescription will also buy related food products in the same trip. For instance, while picking up heart medicine, they buy a quart of low-fat milk. More affluent elderly shoppers, coupled with increased prescribing and awareness about preventable chronic disease, presents opportunities for the supermarket as "wellness center" to cross-sell wellness-related items. And to make the picture even better, when asked by the International Food Information Council to name the foods they thought offered health benefits beyond nutrition, 1,000 consumers didn't leap to the obscure. Instead, they named the basics found on your aisles: Fruits and vegetables; fish, fish oil, seafood; milk and dairy; whole grains, oats, oat bran and oatmeal; fiber; green tea; meat, red meat and chicken; water; herbs and spices; and nuts.

So why not take the opportunity to more obviously connect the dots?

A program in seven states throughout the United States and the District of Columbia has attempted a novel effort to do just that, by working with local health clinics to "prescribe" fruits and vegetables to patients suffering chronic disease--typically diabetes related to obesity or unhealthy eating habits. Health clinics and farmers markets work together to enroll overweight and obese children in the program. During each monthly visit with a health-care provider, the participant gets a "prescription" for $1 per day per family member, which can only be redeemed for locally grown produce at the partnering farmers market.

For the 2012 program, the most recent results available, follow up surveys showed:

  • More than 90 percent of patients said they were eating more fresh fruits and vegetables as a result.
  • Healthcare workers who asked patients during each visit to describe their daily fruit and vegetable consumption found 55 percent were eating more fruits and vegetables at their final visit than at their first.
  • Plus, 38 percent of child patients decreased their Body Mass Index between their first and last visit.

Although the Wholesome Wave program was intended to promote better access to Farmers Markets, which gives it a political mission, an independent community supermarket could learn much about adopting the concept into its own marketing program. Lessons learned:

  • Focus on community. The program likely succeeds because it is community-based. It encourages partnerships between doctors, nutritionists, community health workers, farmers, farmers market operators, and community members. Local, community-focused supermarkets should have a natural leg-up on that approach.
  • Take ownership. The local grocer will likely have to coordinate the program to see the benefits from it. In the states where the concept has worked, it has been spearheaded by an organization known as Wholesome Wave, an advocacy group for small farms, local food systems and farmers markets. The group does not advocate for better access to produce through supermarkets, beyond advocating for general increases in SNAP funding. Instead, it promotes farmers markets as healthier, higher quality sources than supermarkets. Grocers interested in capitalizing on the interest will have to pull together interested health providers and public or private funding sources to underwrite the program.
  • Use your store nutritionist as the point person. The Wholesome Wave program puts nutritionists in connection with the health-care provider and, in some cases, a community health worker who discuss the importance of healthy eating and active living, with a focus on the importance of eating fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • Survey, survey, survey. Collecting and analyzing data from participants about the changes in their food habits and health indicators is an integral part of the current programs. It also helps justify continued funding. Data collection occurs throughout program implementation, for about 16 to 20 weeks during the peak of farmers market fruit and vegetable season. Primary care providers track weight, Body Mass Index, and fruit and vegetable consumption at each, compiling it all into a secure online database all participating clinics can access for generalized data.

Click here for more information.

Navigating the New Food Movement: How Good are Farmers Markets for Farmers?

Do farmers markets really improve farm incomes?

Farm-to-consumer marketing programs like the Nebraska Department of Agriculture’s Buy Fresh Buy Local Nebraska and USDA's Know Your Farmer Know Your Food are founded on the premise that increasing the number of food shoppers who buy directly from farmers helps the economic viability of small farms. "Whether consumers are purchasing tomatoes at a local farmers' market or picking some apples at a roadside stand, they are contributing back to their local economy," said Casey Foster, ag promotion coordinator with the state agriculture department.

But you may be surprised to find that cherished assumption has little scientific backing.

Ag Economics researchers from Louisiana will publish a study in an upcoming issue of the journal Agricultural Economics challenging the widely held notion that encouraging the food chain to cut out the supermarket middleman makes for healthier economics for farmers. In contrast to the “plethora” of journal articles studying the consumer at direct outlets like farmers markets, the researchers say, research is almost nonexistent about the behavior of the farmers themselves and how direct marketing affects their farm business income.

Specifically, no previous studies the Louisiana team uncovered focused on how farmers’ management and marketing skills affect their decisions to use either roadside stands, or on-farm stores, farmer’s markets or community supported agriculture programs, vs. less-direct markets like direct sales to local grocers, regional distributors and state branding programs, or some combination of the two. None of the studies they reviewed have examined the impact of marketing and management skills on the financial performance of the farmers’ business when they market through such non-conventional channels.

So the Louisiana researchers pulled data from the nationwide 2008 Agricultural Resource Management Survey collected by the Economic Research Service and National Agricultural Statistics Service of USDA. After excluding data for farms organized as non-family corporations or cooperatives and farms run by hired managers, their results found:

  • One in 10 of the farmers used only direct-to-consumer selling like roadside stands and community supported agriculture subscriptions. Seven percent used indirect methods like selling to a local grocer. Four percent used some combination of the two. That leaves 79 percent of farms in the 2008 figures using no direct-to-consumer sales.
  • Farmers who sold direct reported earnings that were on average significantly lower than earnings from the other marketing strategies. The average earnings of $273,011 are about 75 percent lower than earnings for farmers who do not engage in any direct sales.
  • Their statistical analysis at least implies that farmers with higher skills or more experience in marketing likely prefer to sell through intermediate channels, like selling to a local supermarket. Farmers in the direct-only category typically were those using the fewest marketing techniques compared to others. More than half of the exclusively direct-to-consumer farmers did not use any advanced marketing tools like marketing advisory services, options, futures, on-farm storage, contract shipping, networking or farmer cooperatives. The researchers suggested this may be due to the fact that selling through intermediate markets often places specific quality and quantity requirements on them, which necessitate the use of those more advanced marketing skills in order to succeed.
  • Overall farm sales for farmers who sold only directly to consumers actually fell--by an average of 2 percent. That compares to a 20.5 percent growth rate for farmers with no direct sales.

Navigating the New Food Movement: What does (and should) 'local' mean to the grocer? Some insights from the social scientists

Buy local food? Why?

"Nebraskans spend $4.4 billion on food each year. Yet only 10 percent stays in our state," laments Nebraska's agrarian populists at the Center for Rural Affairs. "Shouldn’t we expect most of the food we purchase to come from our state?"

Consternation over the excessive "food miles" your products travel in order to get from the farm field to your store have led those like the Center's authors to argue to consumers and regulators that food systems can only be sustainable and socially just if they originate within a set number of miles. But one vexing problem remains: How exactly to define the vague and soft term "local."

"'Local food' or 'regional food,'" the Center's authors have written, "have no precise definitions, nor is it legally defined in the way that legislation has defined 'organic.'  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."

With so much confusion over a basic definition, what's a local-centric grocer to do?

Ignore it. Here's why.

Several interesting articles from one scholarly journal have recently attempted to get their hands around the meaning from both an academic's and a consumer's point of view. Some valuable lessons can be taken for the grocer interested in appealing to that class of shoppers:

  • In "Food miles, local eating, and community supported agriculture: putting local food in its place," Pennsylvania's Kutztown University scholar Steven Schnell argues that focusing on food miles cheapens and causes us to miss what's really important about why citizens seem to yearn for local food. "The dialogue over food miles...," he says, "has largely centered not on complex reality, but on a caricature, and a single variable stripped of its context." Local eating is not really about mileage, Schnell believes; it's about connecting people to a community. Trying to assign an ideal number of miles oversimplifies a complex process in which shoppers are trying to connect with  particular producers, particular markets, particular environments and particular people. Food, he believes, is simply one part of that "narrative" they tell themselves about where they fit in the world.
  • In "CSA membership and psychological needs fulfillment: an application of self-determination theory" a group of University of Wisconsin ecologists examine the pyschological needs driving why consumers join Community Supported Agriculture buying programs, subscription-based direct-buying programs that connect local shoppers with local farms. Through interviews with those buying members about why they join and leave CSAs, they suggest those local-buying programs meet shoppers' needs to feel independent and in control of their own lives, capable and competent in providing for themselves, and related to people and communities surrounding them. Although the Wisconsin researchers concede they have only scratched the surface of the deep psychology behind local food buying, they suggest the field is ripe for further research, including if, why and how shoppers better meet those psychological needs by shopping at a farmers market vs. at a supermarket.
  • In the article "Beyond agriculture: the counter-hegemony of community farming," British social scientists approach the motivations of local food buying by considering it as a new form of liesure activity, in which shoppers are at heart attempting to exert some rebellion against authority by participating, vicariously though it may be, in growing their own food. Sort of like an avid golfer who eventually turns a sport into work in order to set himself apart by excelling at something others cannot do, local-food advocates who are so involved they go so far as to volunteer their time to help plant and harvest at local community-supported farms are similarly disguising a non-essential liesure activity as hard work that sets them apart from the power anonymousing forces of modern society. By participating in local farming, they are "busy constructing meaningful lives outside of conventional work and leisure activities that bear all the hallmarks of a big leisure project, although it is no longer understood (or performed) in these terms," they write. "...the majority of the participants in the CSA did not routinely view their activities and deployment of time as leisure per se. Rather, they viewed their participation as a part of their wider lives, part of their personal project...[that] speaks to others about who we are, what we hold to be valuable and how we can make a difference.’’

What does that all mean to grocers looking for opportunity in the local food department?

In this broader sense, "local" is a double-edged sword for locally owned, community grocers. You can't fake the authenticity consumers are longing for when they buy local. So the fact that 90 percent of locally sourced food is originating with farms grossing more than a quarter million dollars annually puts grocers riding that train at risk of appearing to be inauthentic. On the other hand, if consumers are looking for a means to stay rooted in time and place via a sense of community, few retailers are in better position to lead that than the community focused grocer.

As this essay explains, if true, then the "food" portion of the "local food" movement may be a case of the marketing tail wagging the dog. Grocers who see locally sourced food as only a small part of fulfilling their commitment to the community, through community relations, employee relations and true contributions, will put themselves in the lead in capturing the loyalty of those local-focused consumers, regardless of how many miles the food they offer travels to get to them.

Navigating the New Food Movement: A Five-Point Food-Safety Reality Check, From Nebraska's Former Head Doctor

A food-safety reality check

Dick Raymond, Nebraska’s Chief Medical Officer from 1999 through 2005 and USDA Undersecretary for Food Safety under George Bush, took note of five common perceptions about food-animal production and the possible effect on human health at a recent symposium on antibiotic issues, sponsored by the National Institute for Animal Agriculture, in Kansas City. The reality, according to the Loup City native, falls far from the perception:

Perception: Modern food is poisoning us.

Reality: Media hits regarding food-borne illness outbreaks have been up 150 percent in the last decade; media hits for food recalls--driven by the likes of Peanut Corp. of America, Wright Egg Farms and Jensen Family Farms--have risen 250 percent in that same time period. But what has the actual rate of foodborne illness done in that same time period? It has fallen by 29 percent. “Food safety in this country is the best it has ever been, and part of that is because of modern animal husbandry practices and food safety technologies,” Raymond argues.

Perception: Confined animal feeding operations are bad.

Reality: Driven by criticism such as the highly visible Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, the average shopper has been skillfully led to the conclusion that today’s intensive, indoor animal-raising system creates a threat of increased risk of food-borne illness—a threat that must be staved off by frequent use of antibiotics to control infections. But the important back story those like Pew ignore is the food-protection success story that technology brought along with the American farmers’ move to intensive production, including:

  • Selective, controlled and planned breeding that made the ability to use the best genetics to improve productivity and change traits to give consumers what they wanted, even while driving average costs down.
  • Greater production, and all the attending benefits, from taking animals out of  inclement weather and hot/cold extremes.
  • Indoor feeding and growing facilities to limit exposure to vermin, parasites and disease-carrying wild animals and birds. (Think “bird flu.”)
  • Hog maternity pens that protect naturally submissive mother pigs from naturally dominant mother pigs, ensuring adequate access to feed and water.
  • Better transportation systems, resulting in less stress for animals and promoting more humane handling.

As those technological improvements benefited the farmer’s productivity, according to Raymond, the real value of intensive, confined animal feeding is the food-safety improvements that resulted:

  • The risk today of catching trichinosis by eating undercooked pork—the perennial disease caused by exposure to wild animals and garbage feeding of eras past that has been eliminated by indoor housing--is history.
  • Children no longer die and people are no longer sickened by common diseases spread by milk, like brucellosis and tuberculosis.
  • Studies show Salmonella is less common in conventionally produced chicken than free-range chicken. The rate of Salmonella infection in the conventional poultry chain, as evidenced by USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service testing on young chickens, was 2.7 percent last quarter, down from 16 percent in 2005.
  • Illness from E coli O157:H7 foodborne illness are down nearly 50 percent and at an all-time low in 2010.

Perception: We do not give antibiotics to healthy people to help prevent them from catching disease; we shouldn’t do the same with farm animals.

Reality: For those opposed to the Food and Drug Administration-approved use of antibiotics for disease prevention and control in animals raised for food, Raymond counters, he points to “hundreds of examples” of how antibiotics are used in human medicine for these purposes, including

  • Preventively administering penicillin to hundreds of college dormitory residents living nearby a single student diagnosed with bacterial meningitis.
  • Giving an antibiotic before dental work to a patient who has an artificial heart valve, in order to protect against the possibility of germs entering the bloodstream and infecting the heart.

The medical literature is filled with examples of such preventive use of antibiotics in human medicine. Why would some people suggest animals don’t deserve the same protection from a known risk? Raymond asks. Biological tools like antibiotics help keep animals healthier by preventing or controlling disease as well as treating actual disease. This is not only good for growth and production but also a humane practice that prevents diseases that could wipe out an entire flock or herd.

Perception: Up to 80 percent of antibiotics sold in this country are wasted on healthy farm animals.

Reality: Farmer Goes to Market has previously vetted this questionable claim, which Raymond notes is routinely repeated by members of Congress, The Pew Charitable Trust, Consumers Union and the media. The reality is that figure grossly overstates the consumption of antibiotics that are important to human medicine because it treats all antibiotics as equal. They aren’t. Of the numbers reported by FDA annually as sold for animal use (food and pets), more than 40 percent are in the tetracycline class. Tetracyclines are decades-old antibiotics that today are of very limited use in human medicine, with many better choices available. At the same time, the antibiotic classes that are considered critically important to human medicine—the flouroquinolones and cephalosporins—represent only 0.1 percent and 0.2 percent of the antibiotics FDA says is sold for animal use.

Perception: “Superbugs” spread by food are threatening to return us to a “pre-antibiotics” age.

Reality: This misperception arises because activist groups and the media mix their metaphors when it comes to the reality of how and why some germs develop the ability to resist certain antibiotics. Yes, the retail chicken and ground turkey meat monitoring samples collected by the federal government’s National Antibiotics Resistance Monitoring System reported in February found traces of Salmonella that were resistant to several antibiotics, Raymond concedes. However, the four most common antibiotics that Salmonella showed resistance to were tetracycline, streptomycin, sulfisoxazole and penicillin. None of those four drugs would be used to treat a Salmonella infection in a person. Meanwhile, none of the Salmonella found on meat samples were resistant to the particular class of antibiotics known as flouroquinolones, which is the first choice antibiotic in human Salmonella cases.  In addition, only 4.3 percent and 0.5 percent of the Campylobacter found on the meat samples were resistant to the macrolide class of antibiotics. Macrolides are the drug of choice doctors would use to treat human Campylobacter cases. FDA responded to criticism of antibiotic policy based on the report by the Environmental Working Group by saying “First-line treatments for all four bacteria that we track are still effective…. We believe EWG is inaccurate and alarmist to define bacteria resistance to one, or even a few, antimicrobials as ‘superbugs’ if these bacateria are treatable by other commonly used antibiotics.” Superbugs are real, Raymond says, but they are not food-borne and they are a direct use of humans using and misusing antibiotics, not farmers. The Infectious Disease Society of America recognizes that the list of true superbugs had no food-borne or animal connections.

Navigating the New Food Movement: Next Year, Let's Hold Farmers Market Week at the Supermarket

When the U.S. Department of Agriculture urged shoppers to help celebrate National Farmers Market Week in late August by visiting one of more than 8,000 local farmers markets in the nation, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack called them "a critical part of our nation's food system." In promoting the government's efforts to further such direct-to-shopper local and regional markets, Vilsack said farmers markets are needed to "help fill a growing consumer demand for fresh, healthy foods."

USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service Administrator Anne Alonzo said, "Due to consumer demand for local food we are seeing an increase in the diversity of market offerings, and more participation from small businesses and farms. This year we are focusing on the sustainability and maturity of farmers markets- keeping new and old markets thriving and improving. Farmers markets around the country continue to be popular social events for families and communities."

But are they really filling the holes supermarkets are leaving in the demand for healthier food, as USDA implies? Here's what one recent study, published in October's American Journal of Agricultural Economics, found:

Washington State economics professors Jeremy Sage and Vicki McCracken, along with human development research associate Rayna Sage, used mapping software to plot the location of both supermarkets and farmers markets in that state, and then attempted to evaluate whether the present distribution of farmers’ markets fills in holes where supermarkets have left so-called food deserts--areas where the poor presumedly don't have access to a supermarket within a reasonable distance. Or, the Washington State researchers asked, do farmers markets simply duplicate and expand the food choices more traditional retail establishments already offer?

After comparing the presence and relative proximity of supermarkets and farmers markets in Washington's urban centers, along with the income level and demographics of the neighboring populations, the economists noted these results:

  • In urban areas, the team found farmers’ markets are often located close to grocery stores, especially in larger urban areas like Seattle, where roughly half of the 57 farmers markets lie within two-thirds mile of a grocery store, with many others not much farther away than that. They point to other research showing farmers markets say they pick a location for much the same reason other retailers do: because it draws shoppers. When competing for both shoppers and farmer-suppliers, Sage noted, potential gains in food access for the poor farmers markets bring are often at risk by the same economic realities supermarkets face. " should be of little surprise that we see so many of these markets locating close to established grocers, which are generally in areas of more retail activity," they said.
  • Of the 1,004 census tracts in the state, 64 were identified as an urban food desert, because it lacked the presence of a supermarket without a "reasonable" walking distance. However, of those tracts, fully 92 percent were no more than two-thirds of a mile from a retail food outlet that wasn't a grocery store--typically a convenience store. Surprisingly, when they accounted for poverty level, the average distance a shopper would have to travel to a food source--whether supermarket, convenience store or farmers market--actually went down, not up. In other words, people in poor urban areas are actually closer to food sources than those in more affluent areas.
  • Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program dollars do appear to play an important role in farmers market usage in food deserts. Farmers markets within food deserts had at least triple the dollar amount of low-income senior and WIC vouchers redeemed compared to markets outside food deserts--regardless of the size of the market. Ten of the 15 markets found in urban food deserts were accepting WIC and Senior Food Vouchers, and collected them at "rather impressive levels," the study team found. Their results imply public support dollars may be a necessary lure to bring the poor to farmers markets.
  • "Nearly a quarter of high-poverty residents of food deserts can be considered to have high access to a healthy food source," the study noted, but it's not necessarily because a farmers market exists in place of an absent grocery store. It's because a farmers market exists in conjunction with a grocery within a managable distance.


In patnership with the Nebraska Grocery Industry Association

The Nebraska Grocery Industry Association was formed in 1903 by a group of Omaha grocery store owners, wholesalers and vendors to allow them to promote independent food merchants and members of the food industry, and to promote education and cooperation among its membership. NGIA continues to represent grocery store owners and operators, along with wholesalers and vendors located throughout Nebraska, by promoting their success through proactive government relations, innovative solutions and quality services. NGIA offers efficient and economical programs. NGIA also lobbies on both a state and national level, ensuring that the voice of the food industry in Nebraska is heard by our representatives.

Supported by the Nebraska Corn Board

The Nebraska Corn Board, on behalf of 23,000 corn farmers in Nebraska, invests in market development, research, promotion and education of corn and value-added products. The board aims to work closely with the farmer-to-consumer food chain, to educate everyone about the role corn has in our everyday healthy lives. The Nebraska Corn Board is proud to sponsor the Farmer Goes to Market program to help bring its mission of expanding demand and value of Nebraska corn to the consumer, through the strongest touch point in that chain: the Nebraska retail grocer.

Supported by the Nebraska Farm Bureau

The farm and ranch families represented by Nebraska Farm Bureau are proud sponsors of the Farmer Goes to Market program. We take great pride in supporting Nebraska's agricultural foundation. A key part of that effort is to make sure we produce safe and affordable food. This newsletter is an important part of our effort to connect the two most important parts of the food chain -- the farmer and the grocer -- with the goal of increasing consumer awareness and information about how their food is raised in Nebraska.