Local produce merchandised as "Homegrown" at a retailer. ( The Packer staff )

New studies report local food continues to have a strong grip on U.S. consumers.

In a consumer survey, Market Force Information reported in June that 58% of shoppers said locally sourced meat, produce and dairy products were important to them.

In separate research published in June, digital startup company Forager reported a survey of New England and New York consumers revealed that 84% of those polled said they shop for local foods in stores, with 70% seeking out local vegetables and 47% looking for local fruit.

Forager reported 40% of consumers spending at least $50 or more a week on local food. The research found that 77% of consumers preferred buying local because it tastes better and 94% said they wanted to support the local economy and farmers.

About six in 10 said they buy local to support the health of the plant, according to Forager. The research found that 54% of those polled said limited offerings in stores represented a “significant barrier” to buying local.

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.

In an article on the news site theconversation.com headlined, “Meet the foodies who are changing the way Americans eat,” the authors cited studies confirming the growth of local food demand.

The National Restaurant Association reported locally sourced foods was the top menu trend of 2016 and remains hot today. Packaged Facts estimated that local food sales are expected to grow from $11.7 billion in 2014 to $20.2 billion by 2019.

University of Oregon professors Joshua Beck and Brandon Reich, authors of the article on theconversation.com, said their research found that consumers don’t care who is peddling local food.

“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,” the authors said. “It’s the localness that matters most.”

At the same time retailers expand their local offerings, the authors said farms that sell direct to consumers also are on the rise. 

Likewise, the number of farmers markets has risen from about 3,000 in 2006 to more than 8,000 in 2014, according to the authors.


Meeting the demand

Produce marketers say they make business decisions in response to the trend.

“The need or want for local produce is a pretty significant part of our business, and we have diversified our growing locations so that we could meet that demand of our customers,” said Renee Goodwin, director of sales for Keenes, Ill.-based Frey Farms.

While the company was once only a Midwest producer, the company has evolved over the years to source from more growing areas.

“The national retailers have become so aware and customers have become so interested in buying local that (we) have expanded our production areas,” she said.

Instead of growing in just one or two states, the firm grows watermelons in seven to nine states, depending on the season. Harvest for the company begins in mid-March and continues through the entire domestic season, sometimes into December with South Florida watermelon.

Many top retailers periodically check with Frey Farms to verify picking locations and keep up to date with ad promotions and merchandising efforts for local produce, Goodwin said.

Sometimes the company can tag its melons by state of origin and that gives consumers even more confidence about the source of the produce they are buying, she said.

For Brooks Tropicals, Mary Ostlund, director of marketing for the Homestead, Fla.-based company, said the appeal of local can sometimes extend to “USA grown” for consumers.

“I find most consumers are willing to expand what they consider locally grown if the fruits or veggies just can’t be grown where they live,” Ostlund said.

If consumers can’t find local production, she said they can still be enthusiastic about U.S. grown produce.

“Especially with tropicals like star fruit, passion fruit, dragon fruit, (consumers) are willing to expand the definition of local,” she said.

“It’s a good value to them that its domestic.”

Ostlund said retailers can help prompt the consumer demand by creating displays of locally grown or U.S. grown items.

Ostlund said Brooks Tropicals is now enjoying the height of domestic season tropical fruit, including avocados, star fruit, dragon fruit and guavas. Passion fruit harvest will expand in September, she said.