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Why we buy local food

Don’t judge local products by their price alone.

TLD | June 13, 2014 | By Bill Palladino

About the Author

Bill Palladino is senior policy specialist with the Michigan Land Use Institute. You can reach him at bill@mlui.org.

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There’s an old Polish proverb that goes, “Fish, to taste right, must swim three times -- in water, in butter and in wine.” Forgive my presumptuousness, but I’ll offer a small change – it should swim three times “in local water, in local butter, and in local wine.”

What is your relationship with the food you buy? Do you know the farm that produced the milk you put in your cereal every morning or the hands that slaughtered the steer featured on your dinner plate?

As little as 50 years ago, many of us would’ve answered an unequivocal “yes” to these questions. But today, the market realities of buying local are different than they once were.

In an effort to understand these new realities, the Michigan Land Use Institute and its partners are researching local food buying behavior. Last week we led two focus groups. These informal gatherings were hosted by Tom’s Food Markets as part of their leadership commitment to the local food system.

Among a series of questions we posed to the focus groups, one garnered the most interest. We asked, “Are locally grown and made products inherently more expensive than products from elsewhere?” and the response was much more unified than we ever imagined. Unanimously, the group said “not necessarily.”

Focus group participants agreed that “true value” of a product’s price is critical. One said: “Is it really cheaper if the product is of lesser quality?”  

Sure, there is often a price differential between a local product and its commercially available counterpart. But is it comparing apples to apples? Many people we spoke with didn’t think so. “You get what you pay for,” said one participant. Foods trucked in from California or Chile are not as fresh, and they do little for the local economy. “It’s about educating the consumer about that true value,” said another.

Case in point, community supported agriculture (CSA) farms. CSAs offer a program where consumers pre-purchase a weekly seasonal share of produce from the farm. A typical share might cost $500 for an 18-week period spanning the summer growing season. This share is designed to be enough food for a family of four—though in my family, there’s often too much to eat in one week. If we were to purchase all of this at a grocery store, the cost would easily be three times the share price.

The products my family gets from local farms often travel less than twenty miles from field to kitchen. They are amazingly fresh, and tend to last much longer under refrigeration than their commercial brethren. The reason is simple: Local produce is picked when it’s ripe, not when it’s ready to be trucked 2,000 miles. 

Buying local is a personal choice. But what our research appears to be saying is: Don’t judge local products by their price alone. Take a minute to understand the impact the production of cheap food, made thousands of miles away, has on the community where you live.  Do you know the person who caught your local fish, churned your local butter, and pressed those grapes into your local wine?  I do.

Bill Palladino is Senior Policy Specialist with the Michigan Land Use Institute and directs the Taste the Local Difference™ Program.

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