Perceptions of “Local”

While the dictionary serves up various meanings of the word local, in the last eight years “local” and “locally grown” have emerged as genuine farm product attributes. “Local” is not a physical attribute like weight, color, or temperature. Instead, it is an abstract attribute, like fresh, just picked, or ripe. “Local” can affect volume movement into markets and prices. “Local” is a product attribute farmers of a particular location own; claims of local, when falsified, can affect reputation, livelihood, and confuse food safety trackback investigations.

Consumer Perceptions of Local

If you ask a retail food consumer what locally grown means, they’ll quickly reply with the most commonly understood dictionary meaning: nearby.

When consumers make an educated choice to open their wallets for locally grown, they want to feel an emotional connection to the value-chain that product has traveled from producer to retailer. They want to feel their food choices are healthy and safe for their family. Consumers want to use their food purchasing power as a form of political expression against multinational companies or industrial production of all kinds. Buying local from nearby producers implies supporting community economic independence in relentlessly competitive global market. They want to make their purchases count as a reflection of their lifestyle values: doing good for the world by eating good. As the Hartman Group food consulting company points out, local implies authenticity in food.

Wow, these are heavy burdens to place on one food product-marketing attribute!

Grower Perceptions of Local

Grower-shippers and direct market growers have differing views of what is “local” based on their relationship with their customers. If you farm in South Jersey and your customers are wholesale shippers, you might view Pittsburgh as local. If the customers at your road-side farm market are your neighbors, you view that community as local. However, both would agree that when retailers are bringing in produce from South Carolina, California, or other states, labeling them local while shutting out available New Jersey produce, it is a misuse of the term local.

Retailer, Processor, Distributor
& the US Government Perceptions of Local

If you ask a dairy milk processor or grocery retailer about the meaning of local, they will likely say, “Out to Lake Erie, Ohio – about 500 miles from here.” Marketers understand “local” is laden with powerful consumer psychology. It is used to imbue trust in the retailer’s brand; to strengthen sales of the other non-local products that happen to be on the menu or the store shelf. They want to exploit local for all its worth; hence the temptation for retail sellers to misuse local or locally grown in advertising.

Obviously there is no law defining local on the federal level; nonetheless, the government adds murkiness to “local” and makes its preference known by way of the Farm Bill:

The Farm Bill directed the Secretary of Agriculture to encourage schools to purchase locally grown and locally raised products to the maximum extent practicable and appropriate. The Secretary was also instructed to allow schools to use a “geographic preference” when procuring locally grown and locally raised unprocessed agricultural products. Geographic preference may be based on miles, county, state, regions, season, or product type. In addition, schools using geographic preference when sourcing unprocessed food, are under no obligation to adopt any definition for local that might be in existence in local areas.
-Excerpts from the USDA Farm to School Program advisory on Geographic Preference, What It is and How to Use It (March 2014)

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