Quantcast

Meet the Foodies Who Are Changing the Way Americans Eat

Food
Pexels

By Joshua T. Beck and Brandon Reich

As residents of idyllic Eugene, Oregon, with its culture of local food, we might be forgiven for assuming all Americans are "locavores."


The rich volcanic and glacial soil deposits of the Willamette Valley are irrigated by a splendid river system and tilled by farmers who raise everything from goats to hazelnuts. These farmers make Oregon the seventh-best state in terms of the availability and consumption of local foods, well ahead of neighboring California and Washington. The people of Oregon have access to an exceptional variety of local foods and take great pride in eating local, to the point that the comedy series "Portlandia" made a sketch about it.

And Oregonians aren't alone. Since Oxford University Press proclaimed "locavore" the 2007 word of the year, the local food scene has exploded in communities around the world. Chefs cited locally sourced foods as the top menu trend of 2016, and local food sales are expected to nearly double from 2014 to 2019, topping US$20 billion.

While it may be tempting to stereotype locavores as wealthy hippie liberals, as consumer researchers we wanted to dig deeper. Our research shows that locavorism is a consumer ideology with beliefs that cut across class, politics, age and gender.

Taste vs. Belief

These aren't just people who like to eat local. Locavorism comes complete with a set of strongly held core values and beliefs.

Notably, locavores support local food communities wherever they happen to be. A locavore on vacation in Orlando might venture out to taste one of Florida's many locally grown tropical fruits such as papaya.

And somewhat unexpectedly, our research shows that locavores do not care whether local foods are sold by large corporate retailers, so long as the "local" claim can be trusted. It's the localness that matters most.

Locavores want all of their food, even boring granola, to be locally sourced. And these aren't just gourmet foodies with sophisticated palettes.

The Meaning of "Local"

Given the importance of "local" to locavores, what it means matters. But the definition can vary.

Some might think of local foods as those produced within one's city, state or region. Others might focus solely on the physical distance between production and consumption. Both perspectives are valid and are manifest in the food industry.

For the purposes of farm lending programs, the federal government defines a food as local if it hasn't moved more than 400 miles from where it was grown. Yet most consumers tend to think of local as within 100 miles or their state's borders. The variety of definitions may be why characters in a "Portlandia" sketch opted not to take a restaurant's word and instead visited a farm to verify a chicken's localness.

In fact, deception can be an unfortunate issue within the sector, with some sellers outright lying about the origin of their foods. Yet because locavores are ideologically driven, they tend to root out the hucksters. Locavores' increased tendency to call a farm to express gratitude for ingredients in a restaurant meal makes deceit difficult to sustain.

Video above: Portlandia pokes friendly fun at being a locavore.

Exploring Locavorism

To better understand what it means to be a locavore and develop a way to measure it, we conducted six studies on adult consumers across the U.S.

Prior to beginning the first study, we conducted informal interviews with Oregon farmers, food researchers and consumers at a local market. We also reviewed several books and academic articles concerning local food consumption, all of which led us to classify locavorism as an ideology with three core beliefs:

1. Local foods are superior to non-local foods.

2. Non-local food systems are destructive and untrustworthy.

3. Local food consumption contributes to community.

We then used these beliefs to develop a scale that would allow us to measure locavorism. We generated a set of 23 statements to which consumers could respond on a scale from 1 to 7. Each statement reflected a belief that could fit within one of the three dimensions of locavorism, as well as a few that were more general.

Our first study was primarily meant to test our scale and statements. We asked 196 consumers online to respond to these 23 statements. Their answers helped us narrow it down to a list of 11 that we felt best reflected locavorism.

A second study, also among online consumers, helped us isolate locavorism from similar ideologies, such as hometown bias and anti-corporatism, by identifying locavores using our newly developed scale and measuring reactions to different scenarios. Examples include their food choices while traveling or when a local grocer isn't available. We found that people we identified as locavores always preferred local food, even when traveling and didn't care if the vendor was a national chain.

A third study was a field experiment at the University of Oregon. As people walked through an atrium at the business school, we asked them to participate in a granola taste test and rate how likely they'd be to purchase some. Half of the 99 participants were told that the granola was a local brand, while the rest were told it was national – though they were actually identical.

One week later, we asked them to complete our locavore scale, which showed a strong correlation between those who ranked high and a strong interest in purchasing the granola – but only when it was marketed as local. In reality, all participants tasted the same exact granola. And so from this experiment, we were able to conclude that it is their beliefs rather than physiological taste driving locavores' food preferences.

The final three studies involved surveying grocery shoppers in Los Angeles, New York City and Eugene, Oregon. We found in each case that our scale predicted preferences for local foods versus national brands and showed that locavores derived more meaning from the former.

Overall, the results suggest that locavorism isn't a simple preference. It is a strongly held ideology, akin to politics or religion, that predicts what people eat, where they shop and how they respond to food advertisement.

As we noted, locavorism can't be explained by simple demographic variables. To test this, we aggregated the data from all six of our studies into one dataset comprising 1,261 consumers and examined correlations between locavorism and the demographic measures we collected, such as age, gender and political orientation. We found only weak correlations.

In other words, locavores are their own tribe.

Changing the Food System

Most food in America is still grown by a handful of very large farms. In fact, 4 percent of farms account for two-thirds of all food sales.

Yet there is growing interest in the small-scale, niche farms that sell direct-to-consumer, a sector whose sales grew 61 percent from 2008 to 2012. Around the same time, the number of farmers' markets jumped from under 3,000 in 2006 to more than 8,000 in 2014.

And national supermarket chains such as Safeway, Kroger, Publix and Walmart are hopping on the bandwagon by providing more locally sourced food.

Even more impressive, from 2007 to 2014 there was a 430 percent increase in "farm to school" programs that aim to educate kids about food nutrition and serve locally sourced food in kids' meals.

Put another way, the U.S. may be raising a nation of locavores who will continue to reshape how Americans shop for and eat food.

Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Farms with just one or a handful of different crops encourage fewer species of pollinating and pest-controlling insects to linger, ultimately winnowing away crop yields, according to a new study.

Up to half of the detrimental impacts of the "landscape simplification" that monocropping entails come as a result of a diminished mix of ecosystem service-providing insects, a team of scientists reported Oct. 16 in the journal Science Advances.

Monocrop palm oil plantation Honduras.

SHARE Foundation / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0​

"Our study shows that biodiversity is essential to ensure the provision of ecosystem services and to maintain a high and stable agricultural production," Matteo Dainese, the study's lead author and a biologist at Eurac Research in Bolzano, Italy, said in a statement.

It stands to reason that, with declines in the sheer numbers of insects that ferry pollen from plant to plant and keep crop-eating pests under control, these services will wane as well. But until now, it hasn't been clear how monocultures affect the number and mix of these species or how crop yields might change as a result.

Aiming to solve these questions, Dainese and his colleagues pulled together data from 89 studies cutting across a variety of landscapes, from the tropics of Asia and Africa to the higher latitudes of northern Europe. They tabulated the number of pollinating and pest-controlling insects at these sites — both the absolute number of individuals and the number of species — along with an assessment of the ecosystem services the insects provided.

In almost all of the studies they looked at, the team found that a more diverse pool of these species translated into more pollination and greater pest control. They also showed that simplified landscapes supported fewer species of service-providing insects, which ultimately led to lower crop yields.

The researchers also looked at a third measure of the makeup of insect populations — what they called "evenness." In natural ecosystems, a handful of dominant species with many more individuals typically live alongside a higher number of rarer species. The team found as landscapes became less diverse, dominant species numbers dwindled and rare species gained ground. This resulting, more equitable mix led to less pollination (though it didn't end up affecting pest control).

"Our study provides strong empirical support for the potential benefits of new pathways to sustainable agriculture that aim to reconcile the protection of biodiversity and the production of food for increasing human populations," Ingolf Steffan-Dewenter, one of the study's authors and an animal ecologist at the University of Würzburg in Germany, said in the statement.

The scientists figure that the richness of pollinator species explains around a third of the harmful impacts of less diverse landscapes, while the richness of pest-controlling species accounts for about half of the same measure. In their view, the results of their research point to the need to protect biodiversity on and around crops in an uncertain future.

"Under future conditions with ongoing global change and more frequent extreme climate events, the value of farmland biodiversity ensuring resilience against environmental disturbances will become even more important," Steffan-Dewenter said.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Mongabay.

View of an Ivorian cleared forest at the edge of the 35.000 hectares Peko Mont National Park on Oct. 8, 2016. The Mont Péko National Park is located in the west of Ivory Coast where the forest officers fight with illegal immigrants to protect an exceptional flora and fauna, espacially dwarf elephants. SIA KAMBOU / AFP / Getty Images

Ivory Coast's rainforests have been decimated by cocoa production and what is left is put in peril by a new law that will remove legal protections for thousands of square miles of forests, according to The Guardian.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
The Apusiaajik Glacier, as seen from Kulusuk village in East Greenland. Like most glaciers in Greenland, it's retreating rapidly, changing the local landscape year by year. Photo credit: Karin Kirk

By Karin Kirk

Greenland had quite the summer. It rose from peaceful obscurity to global headliner as ice melted so swiftly and massively that many were left grasping for adjectives. Then, Greenland's profile was further boosted, albeit not to its delight, when President Trump expressed interest in buying it, only to be summarily dismissed by the Danish prime minister.

During that time I happened to be in East Greenland, both as an observer of the stark effects of climate change and as a witness to local dialogue about presidential real estate aspirations, polar bear migrations and Greenland's sudden emergence as a trending topic.

Read More Show Less

Heavy metals that may damage a developing brain are present in 95 percent of baby foods on the market. Cirou Frederic / PhotoAlto Agency RF Collections / Getty Images

Heavy metals that may damage a developing brain are present in 95 percent of baby foods on the market, according to new research from the advocacy organization Healthy Babies Bright Futures (HBBF), which bills itself as an alliance of scientists, nonprofit organizations and donors trying to reduce exposures to neurotoxic chemicals during the first three years of development.

Read More Show Less
Chicago skyline on July 22 as high winds continue to push the waters of Lake Michigan over the top of the pedestrian and bike trail along the lakefront in Chicago. Raymond Boyd / Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

By Daniel Macfarlane

Every fall, I take my environmental studies class camping at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore on Lake Michigan. Some years the beach extends more than three meters to the water. This year, in many spots, there was no beach at all.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Insects like bees, butterflies and even certain species of beetle and ant incidentally pollinate our crops when they collect protein-rich pollen and sugary nectar. Rolf Dietrich Brecher / CC BY 2.0

By Kerstin Palme

Creepy-crawlies are among the oldest life forms on this planet. Before dinosaurs ever walked the earth, insects were certainly already there. Some estimates date their origins to 400 million years ago. They're also extremely successful. Of the 7 to 8 million species documented on Earth, around three quarters are likely bugs.

But several insect species could disappear for good in the next few decades and that would have serious consequences for humans.

Read More Show Less
Swedish automaker Volvo unveils its first electric vehicle the XC40 Recgarge EV, during an event in Los Angeles on Oct. 16. Frederic J. BROWN / AFP / Getty Images

Volvo introduced its first-ever all-electric vehicle this week, kicking off an ambitious plan to slash emissions and phase out solely gas-powered vehicles starting this year.

Read More Show Less
Cars are queued in Turin, Italy in August. Particulate matter levels were the highest in Italy, Poland and the Balkans countries. Nicolò Campo / LightRocket / Getty Images

Air pollution in Europe led to more than 400,000 early deaths in 2016, according to the most recent air quality report published by the European Environment Agency (EEA).

The report, released Wednesday, found that almost every European who lives in a city is exposed to unhealthy air, Reuters reported.

Read More Show Less