Defining Local Food

Posted: 6/25/2015

Sturgis student’s agriscience project

explores how consumers define local food


Buying “local food” is a trend that has seen increasing support from American consumers over the past 20 years. But just how do consumers define local? Surprisingly, no standardized definition currently exists in the U.S.

“Some consumers define local as food grown within their state; other consumers use an even more stringent definition and define local as food grown within 100 miles of their home,” says Bridger Gordon, a student at Sturgis Brown High School in Sturgis, S.D.

Gordon also notes that the U.S. government has a different definition for local food. According to the 2008 Farm Act, a product can be marketed as locally or regionally produced if its end-point purchase is within 400 miles from its origin, or within state boundaries. And, he says, national grocer Whole Foods, takes a store-by-store policy in defining local. On it’s website, Whole Foods states: “How do we define local? Well, mostly we like to leave it up to our stores. Generally though, we try to use state lines.”

For his freshman agriscience project, Gordon, who is a member of the Sturgis FFA Chapter, decided to dig deeper into the topic and survey consumers to see how they prefer to define local food.

Consumers were asked via an online survey to identify if they define local food as produced within their state; within a certain number of miles from their home; or within their county. Additionally, consumer input was sought related to reasons for buying local food items; factors that influence local food purchases, including price; which local food item is given highest priority and other questions..

The survey link was distributed online to more than 20 farmers markets and 10 food bloggers in South Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota, Iowa, California and Georgia, who were asked to share the link with their followers through social media including Facebook and Twitter. A total of 190 responses were collected during the seven-week survey period, with 74% of the respondents being female. More than half of the respondents (56.4%) live outside of South Dakota, and 31.2% live in a city with a population of 50,000 or more.


Survey Findings

Survey respondents were nearly equally split on how they define local food. About one-third (33.5%) of survey participants define local as “produced within my state or neighboring state,” while another one-third (31.9%) define local as “produced within 100 miles or less from my home,” Gordon reports of his findings.

Survey participants did indicate continuing demand for local food products – with nearly 40% indicating a willingness to make local food purchases a priority if product was more readily available, and about 80% of survey respondents indicating a willingness to pay more for local food at least occasionally. Supporting the local economy or sustainable agriculture was the top reason cited as to why consumers purchase local food.


Survey respondents indicated that quality and freshness was the top ranked factor given the most consideration when purchasing fresh produce and meats. Price was ranked by respondents as the second most important factor, followed by nutritional value, locally produced, convenience and organic.

Survey participants indicated that vegetables are the highest priority local food item they seek, with beef and pork ranking a close second. Fruits, eggs, and poultry, respectively, followed in the ranking, with milk being ranked as the lowest priority local food item sought.

Respondents did indicate a willingness to pay more for locally grown products (41%), additionally 46.8% of respondents said they would occasionally pay more. Specifically, one hundred forty-eight of respondents indicated they would pay 5 to 20% more, with the largest number of respondents (43.2%) indicating a willingness to pay 10% more for locally grown food.

Survey respondents also indicated an interest in knowing where their food comes from. About 40% of survey participants indicated that they sometimes look at a food label or restaurant menu to determine where the food was produced. Nearly 30% said they frequently look for this information. Survey respondents also indicated interest in meeting and knowing the food producer.

Of his survey results, Gordon says clearly consumers are interested in where their food is produced, and they seem willing to pay more for products that are deemed local. Gordon says he hopes this information will help farmers better market their local products and realize the importance of communicating and connecting with consumers. 


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