American Sociological Association

Americans Support Local Food Markets to Feel Part of Something Bigger Than Themselves

More Americans than ever before are supporting their local food markets, and it's not just because they believe the food is fresher and tastes better.

According to a new University of Iowa (UI) study, people are shopping at farmers markets and joining food co-ops in record numbers because they enjoy knowing who grows their food. These so-called "locavores" are also driven to eat locally grown produce and locally raised meat because their commitment to do so makes them feel a part of something greater than themselves — a community that shares their passion for a healthy lifestyle and a sustainable environment.

For these enthusiasts, supporting the local food movement is a sort of civic duty, an act to preserve their local economy against the threats of globalization and big-box stores.

"It's not just about the economical exchange; it's a relational and ideological exchange as well," said Ion Vasi, an associate professor with a joint appointment in the Department of Sociology and Tippie College of Business at the UI and the lead author of the study.

Vasi said the local food market is what sociologists call a "moralized market," that is a market in which people combine economic activities with their social values. Among their findings, the UI researchers discovered local food markets were more likely to develop in areas where residents had a strong commitment to civic participation, health, and the environment.

"It's about valuing the relationship with the farmers and people who produce the food and believing that how they produce the food aligns with your personal values," said Vasi, who will present the research at the 110th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association (ASA).

As part of their study, Vasi and his co-authors examined the development of local food markets by looking at the number of farmers markets, food co-ops, community-supported agriculture providers, and local food restaurants in cities across the United States. The researchers also conducted 40 interviews with consumers and producers in different local food markets in Iowa and New York.

From a historical perspective, the recent growth of local food markets is rather surprising.

In 1971, Jane Pyle predicted farmers markets were "doomed by a changing society" in an article penned for The Geographical Review. At the time, there were about 340 farmers markets left in the United States and many were "populated by resellers, not farmers, and were on the verge of collapse," Pyle wrote.

However, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), national direct-to-consumer food sales increased three-fold between 1992 and 2007, growing twice as fast as total agricultural sales. The number of farmers markets listed in the USDA National Farmers Markets increased from 3,706 in 2004 to 8,268 in 2014. Plus, Vasi and his co-authors found the number of Internet searches for farmers markets almost tripled during that same 10-year period and the number of newspaper articles that mentioned farmers markets almost quadrupled.

So, what's behind this need to know who grows your food and to believe in how it's produced?

It was the onslaught of big-box stores and globalization forces that reignited "buy local" campaigns across the country in the 1990s, said the UI researchers. 

"A growing number of communities have attempted to gain control of their own economies by encouraging civic engagement that supports investing in locally owned businesses instead of outside companies," states the study.

Sara Rynes, a professor of Management & Organizations in the UI's Tippie College of Business, and co-author of the study, said the researchers also found that local food markets (i.e., farmers markets, food co-ops, etc.) were more likely to be located in cities and counties with higher education levels, higher income levels, and more institutions of higher education.

"Sociologists and political scientists have argued that higher income allows people to make consumption decisions based on values in addition to matters of price," Rynes said. "Education is likely to facilitate knowledge about such things as links between the way products are produced and their environmental and health impacts. And universities sometimes get involved in helping local farmers and individuals who are struggling to make a living."

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About the American Sociological Association
The American Sociological Association, founded in 1905, is a non-profit membership association dedicated to serving sociologists in their work, advancing sociology as a science and profession, and promoting the contributions to and use of sociology by society.

The paper, "Resurgence of the Locavore: The Growth of Multi-Motive Local Foods Markets in the United States," was presented on Aug. 22, in Chicago at the American Sociological Association's 110th Annual Meeting.

To obtain a copy of the paper; for assistance reaching the study's author(s); or for more information on other ASA presentations, members of the media can contact Daniel Fowler, ASA Media Relations Manager, at (202) 527-7885 or pubinfo@asanet.org.

This press release was written by Sara Diedrich, University of Iowa. For more information about the study, members of the media can also contact Diedrich at (319) 384-0073 or sara-diedrich@uiowa.edu.

Papers presented at the ASA Annual Meeting are typically working papers that have not yet been published in peer reviewed journals.

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