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Study Offers Fresh Insights into Consumer Perspectives on Local & Regional Food

Findings Highlight Barriers, Opportunities for Regional Food Producers

Jan 31, 2018


A new study exploring consumers’ perceptions of regionally-produced foods in the Northeast United States suggests that consumers are not the best initial target for education initiatives aimed at building a more robust regional food system. Led by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF) in the Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Department of Environmental and Health Engineering, the study is one of the first to attempt to differentiate consumer perceptions of regional and local food systems and offers important insights into how to build support for a regional approach.

In recent years, local food systems have attracted growing support from US food producers, consumers, wholesalers, and retailers. Some of the benefits attributed to “eating local” include reducing food miles, fostering community connections, and supporting local agricultural economies. In comparison, regional food systems have received much less attention, despite the contribution of regional food systems to a sufficient, diverse, affordable, and resilient food supply.

The study is part of a multi-institution, interdisciplinary research project looking at whether regional food systems can improve food access in low-income communities in the Northeast, and improve the long-term food security of the Northeast population. The project, Enhancing Food Security in the Northeast through Regional Food Systems (EFSNE), is funded by the US Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

To better understand US consumers’ views on regional food systems, the EFSNE research team organized seven focus groups with 51 participants across the Northeast. The focus groups took place in Baltimore, Maryland; Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts; Harrington and Milford, Delaware; and Winooski and Burlington, Vermont. Focus group participants discussed topics including the importance of knowing where food is sourced, how people describe their region, and the perceived benefits and drawbacks of regional foods.

“Although some foods like Vidalia onions have regional protections in the US, regionally grown or processed products are typically not distinguished or labeled by producers and processors and not recognized by shoppers as regional,” said Anne Palmer, MA, lead author of the study and director of the Food Communities and Public Health program with the CLF. “In speaking with consumers, we didn’t just want to learn about their buying preferences, we also wanted to get a more holistic understanding of how consumers define and value local and regional food systems.”

The research team found that while many participants in the focus groups were familiar with the concept of local food systems, they often did not distinguish between local and regional food systems. For instance, some participants considered local foods to be only those from within a particular county or state, while others considered the local scale to include foods from a much larger distance. Most participants did not express a definitive regional food system identity or preference. Immigrant and rural participants were more likely than urban participants to be aware of and value regional food.

These findings suggest that there may be opportunities to build consumer appreciation for regional food systems, which could benefit regional producers, distributors, and other supply chain intermediaries. But researchers note that prioritizing consumer education initiatives may not be the most effective strategy for accomplishing this. Retailers and other supply chain players could be a better initial target because of their role in shaping regional production, processing, and purchasing patterns. Institutions such as schools and hospitals are particularly well-positioned to use their buying power to support and expand regional food systems while helping build the evidence base for regional food sourcing.

“Whatever proven and potential benefits are derived from a focus on regional food systems, the popularity of ‘local food’ surely begs the question as to the potential role for consumers in driving demand for any food system change,” said Palmer. “It’s therefore up to policymakers and other stakeholders to identify the importance of ‘regional’ procurement and pave the way for consumers to follow suit.”

Between Global and Local: Exploring Regional Food Systems from the Perspectives of Four Communities in the U.S. Northeast” written by Anne Palmer, Raychel Santo, Ryan Lee, Philip McNab, Linda Berlin, Alessandro Bonanno, Carol Giesecke, Clare Hinrichs Sarah Rocker, and Kate Clancy,  and published in the Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development.