You may think you stop at the farmers' market because the tomatoes are better. In reality, say University of Iowa researchers, your patronage of a farmers' market is a political act.
"It's not just about the economical exchange; it's a relational and ideological exchange as well," said Ion Vasi, an associate professor at the University of Iowa and corresponding author of the study.
The way Vasi sees it, the local food market is what sociologists call a "moralized market" – a market in which people combine economic activities with their social values. That seems to be a major trend in all manner of commerce these days, not just food. Not content to wear their political views on their sleeves, a growing number of consumers serve it on their plates.
The Iowa researchers say they found local food markets were more likely to develop in areas where residents had a strong commitment to civic participation, health, and the environment.
Relationships with the farmers
"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," Vasi said.
That can mean a lot of different things, from growing organically to paying high wages and providing health care to workers. If the food happens to taste better, well so much the better.
Obsessing over food – where and how it's grown and how it's prepared, is a relatively new phenomenon. These consumers are called “foodies".
Vasi has coined another term – “locavores” – to describe the consumers he says are ideologically driven to shop at farmers' markets. He says these consumers enjoy knowing who grows their food and are driven to eat locally grown produce and meat because it “makes them feel a part of something greater than themselves.”
Striking a blow against big business
The study says that for these “locavores,” supporting the local food movement is “an act to preserve their local economy against the threats of globalization and big-box stores.”
To demonstrate how widespread this trend has become, Vasi cites the Agriculture Department's (USDA) estimate that 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, the Iowa researchers found the number of Internet searches for farmers markets has almost tripled during that same 10-year period, and the number of newspaper articles that mention farmers markets has almost quadrupled.
While “locavores” may look askance at multinational food companies, this trend has not escaped these corporations' notice. Food packaging has begun to prominently feature words like “fresh” and “natural.”
Food and beverage marketers also use words like “craft”, “limited edition”, and “small batch” because – surprise – we like it. A new Harris Poll found "handmade/handcrafted" tops the provided list as a mark of quality, with nearly 6 in 10 adults saying it strongly or somewhat communicates that a product is high quality.
"Artisan/artisanal" and "custom" are the next best messengers of high quality, with 46% of adults saying each communicates this, followed by "craft" at 44% and "limited edition" at 41%. Just 31% say the same of "small batch".