Journal of the NACAA
Volume 12, Issue 2 - December, 2019
Using a Socioecological Strategy for Exploring Local Food Barriers
- Hopkins, K. M., Extension Educator, University Of Maine Cooperative Extension
Kantor, D. J., Ph. D., Extension Educator, University of Maine Cooperative Extension
Many strategies have been suggested to encourage the purchase of local foods by consumers and businesses. This exploratory study conducted in the Somerset County region of Maine researched the local food expenditures of businesses and the types of factors that influenced their local food purchasing decisions. Specific items explored included: customer desire for local foods, types and quantities of food items needed by the business, quality requirements for products, food safety certification requirements, price, and product consistency and availability. Our research showed the usefulness of applying a socioecological perspective to understand the interdependent factors that influence purchasing decisions. This comprehensive perspective may improve the success of developing local food programs and policies.
In an effort to improve the economic vitality of our central Maine communities, the Somerset County Economic Development Corporation decided to select a primary goal of increasing local food sales in an effort to support local farms. While local food was already available at farmers markets and through Community Supported Agriculture subscriptions (CSAs), the initial focus was placed on business venues frequented by high disposable income customers as a route to increase agricultural and economic viability for Somerset County.
To support this effort, the University of Maine Cooperative Extension Somerset County Office faculty conducted an exploratory research project to identify what local foods were currently being offered by community businesses, and to determine their interest in expanding their current use of local foods. A purposeful sampling was used to select ten local higher-end businesses in the Somerset County region that serve tourists seeking a variety of activities including: hiking, skiing, golfing, whitewater rafting, and visiting scenic locations.
Semi-structured interviews composed of twelve questions were conducted on the business site with the individuals who were primarily responsible for food procurement at each of the ten selected businesses. We asked open-ended questions about: local foods currently offered, expenditures and factors that influenced local food purchase decisions. These factors included: desired use of local foods, types of produce that buyers demanded, quantities needed, quality of product, consistency, food safety certification requirements, price, and client preferences. Specific questions about value-added and processed foods were also included (see Table 1).
RESULTS AND DISCUSSION
Businesses interviewed recognized the success of many of the “buy local” agricultural campaigns and their customers’ desire for local food items (Stearns, 2017). In Maine there has been a focus on Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food sponsored by USDA and Get Real, Get Maine sponsored by the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry to encourage consumers to seek out local businesses. All ten businesses interviewed said that they provided at least some local foods, and expressed an interest in increasing the use of locally produced foods. However, there were many barriers to increasing the use of local foods for their customers.
Using a socioecological model helps to understand the range of factors affecting business decisions and provides guidance for developing successful programs and policies. This model recognizes that individual business owners are woven into social networks, communities, and a web of public policies and economic realities that influence their decisions. The socioecological model looks at the individual factors of knowledge and attitudes; relationship or interpersonal factors such as interactions with family, friends, social circle; community encompasses the social norms that exist among groups in our neighborhoods and workplaces, and societal the larger variables such as economic and policy factors found in society.
Figure 1: Levels of a sociological model - Adopted from Bronfenbrenner, U. (1977). Toward an experimental ecology of human development. American Psychologist, 32(7), 513-531.
INDIVIDUAL definitions of local: There might be an assumption that the use of this term has a universally understood meaning but our research found many different opinions regarding local. Although the term “local food” is commonly used by researchers, policy makers, educators, and consumers, there is no established definition. In most instances, “local foods” refer to a geographic closeness between the farmer and consumer. However, the USDA reports that distances vary widely from 25 miles up to 350 miles from where the local food is produced (Martinez et al., 2010).
Local defined by the distance the food has traveled: Most of those we interviewed thought of local as within the immediate surrounding towns. However, two businesses described purchasing local food at the town’s supermarket. After one business described getting the majority of their meat from a local chain store in their town, we visited the store. While it did have strawberries from a nearby town, there was no indication that the meat was from local animals. Another business described providing local Cabot cheese which is produced in the state of Vermont thereby apparently extending the definition of local to include New England states.
Local based on perceived attributes: Media promoting the purchase of local food have encouraged the image of small family farms where customers personally know their farmer. Businesses interviewed appreciated farmers markets for the freshness and quality of their food and some added that this is where they make their personal food purchases. However, their limited hours and unpredictable items for sale made it difficult for businesses to extensively use farmers markets for food procurement.
One business struggled with whether to provide Poland Spring water to their customers which came from a spring that they acknowledged was in a nearby town. They explained their quandary saying, “You don’t want to support Nestles.” When they instead served spring water from a smaller company also from a neighboring town, customers would ask if they were selling “tap water.”
Our county is home to Backyard Farms, New England’s largest year-round tomato grower producing 27 million pounds of tomatoes per year, which it ships as far as Maryland. Even though it is a large corporation, several of our businesses mentioned using their tomatoes as an example of local food (Fishell, 2017).
RELATIONSHIPS (Interpersonal) variables: While the individual businesses we interviewed had a range of ideas of how they defined local, they served customers who had their own ideas of what constituted local. The Maine brand is associated with many specialty foods and most famously, lobster, maple syrup, and blueberries. Visitors are expecting a Maine experience when they visit this state. Our county, located in the central part of the state, is not located near the ocean although many businesses included lobster on their menu. The wild blueberries for which Maine is famous are grown in the eastern part of the state. With its short growing season, most of the wild blueberries on the menus we found were previously frozen. Two rafting companies described local beers as the only food that visitors preferred saying that their customers were at their businesses for the outdoor experience not the food. But, they demanded locally brewed beers.
Somerset County is the largest maple producing county in the United States. In spite of this distinction, or perhaps because of it, maple syrup was so ubiquitous to our community that it wasn’t mentioned without our specifically inquiring about it being on their menu or observing it displayed on a counter.
COMMUNITY variables: One of the barriers identified was the different work cultures and lifestyles of farmers and businesses. Farmers or CSAs that made deliveries were strongly preferred as almost all businesses complained of not having time to go pick up food items. Business owners expressed their need for reliability and timeliness, which was often in conflict with farmers whose work, out of necessity, is structured by the task, not the clock. One business owner complained: “Farmers can be a little kooky. Running late. I can’t work that way. If I need it by 1, I must have it here by 1.”
SOCIETAL variables: Other variables that influenced business decisions are larger social factors that are central to a business’s success like the economic need to be profitable, safety regulations and ability to obtain the scale of items a business required.
Economics: The extra costs of local foods was a challenge expressed by all businesses. One person said, “I would buy local eggs ‘in a heartbeat’ but they are more expensive.” This became a limiting factor as their business used thousands of eggs and required that they all be the same standard size.
Policy/Safety concerns: Several businesses had been directly contacted by farmers. While wanting to support these local farmers, businesses also expressed concerns about their products. As one business owner said, “We have farmers that come to the back door. ‘Are you licensed? Do you have insurance? Oh, you have E. coli at your farm?’ Buying local is hard. You can’t buy from just anybody and I don’t need leftovers from the farmers markets.” All the businesses that we contacted required USDA certification for meats and other various certifications for some if not all foods.
Quantity: All businesses engaged large food service vendors to purchase at least part of their food. Often this was due to the sheer quantity needed. One business that purchased most of their vegetables from a CSA, still bought onions from a “big box truck” because they used so many. Another business purchased beef from a large food service vendor saying “We go through 30 sirloins in a few days—that’s a whole herd.”
All ten businesses interviewed currently purchased at least some locally raised food, and 70% were interested in expanding their local food purchases. Our open-ended question, “In what products are you most interested?” received a wide variety of responses. These responses included: chicken, beef, dairy, fruits and vegetables, blueberries, tea, cheese, cream, beer/microbrews, herbs, winter produce, tortillas and rendered pork fat.
The following were the most commonly cited barriers to buying local foods (Figure 2).
Figure 2: Barriers to buying local food
Our research showed the value of taking a systems approach to help in understanding the many interdependent factors that influenced food purchases by business owners who expressed a desire to purchase more local foods. While varying perceptions of how to define local foods is a central challenge, businesses we interviewed have further restraints around the price, consistency, quantity and quality of local food produced. The logistics of running a business are sometimes in conflict with a desire to support local agricultural economies. The rural nature of our county attracts tourists wanting a Maine local food experience, but that rural aspect also creates geographic barriers for accessing farms, farmers markets and CSAs.
Other researchers have identified a similarly ambiguous concept of local ranging from geographic proximity to the social relationships between producer and consumer. (Palmer, 2017). Our efforts to understand the use of local foods and the decision making undertaken by business owners was clouded by this amalgamation of attitudes, values, and expectations. A socioecological perspective can guide policy makers to consider the multiple factors that impact the use of local food by businesses and can assist in developing programs that are successful in promoting local food.
This work was supported by: USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, RREA project 228285 and the Maine Food and Agriculture Center.
Bronfenbrenner, U. (1977). Toward an experimental ecology of human development. American Psychologist 32(7):513-531.
Fishell, D. (June 9, 2017). Canadian greenhouse giant buys Maine tomato grower Backyard Farms. Bangor Daily News. Available from: http://bangordailynews.com/2017/06/09/business/canadian-greenhouse-giant-buys-maine-tomato-grower-backyard-farms/
Martinez, S., et al., (2010). Local Food Systems: Concepts, Impacts and Issues. United States Department of Agriculture. ERR97.
Palmer, A., Santo, R., Berlin, L., Bonanno, A., Clancy, K., Giesecke, C., Hinrichs, C., Lee, R., McNab, P., Rocker, S. (Fall 2017). Between global and local: Exploring regional food systems from the perspective of four communities in the U.S. Northeast. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development, ISSN:2152-0801 online, Available at http://www.foodsystemsjournal.org
Stearns, S. (August 2017). Exploring Options for Local Foods Campaigns. Journal of Extension 55(4) Article #4RIB3. Available at https://www.joe.org/joe/2017august/rb3.php
Table 1. Local Food Questions
1. Do you currently purchase any locally raised or produced foods?
If yes: what do you buy and why?
If not: why not?
2. Are you interested in expanding your purchases or starting to purchase locally raised foods?
3. In what products are you most interested?
4. What product quality/consistency is required?
5. What availability requirements do you have?
6. What food safety certification requirements do you have?
7. Would you be willing to buy direct from farmers or would you prefer to source through a distributor?
8. Approximately what percent of your customers visit your business for a local food experience?
9. Of these customers seeking a local food experience, what types of food do they prefer?
10. Of those customers seeking a local food experience, are they willing to pay a premium for locally grown foods?
11. What are the biggest barriers that prevent you from currently buying locally raised foods?
12. What would be most helpful to you in buying locally raised foods:
-a catalog or directory of area farmers and their products
-include you in a directory of potential buyers that would be given to farmers
-connect you to individual farmers
-develop a distribution system with one-call orders and one-stop deliveries