What once was considered the best way to market fresh foods, especially fresh vegetables, was at local farmers markets and roadside stands.
But progress and technology not only changed the way food is grown but also how it is sold. Since the late 1960s, supermarkets provided produce to consumers grown from farms all across the country and in more recent years from around the world.
By the early 1990s, however, even superstores were discovering that consumer trends were slowly beginning to change again as fresh and organically grown foods gained in popularity. A few large supercenter chains began offering locally grown foods in their produce departments and were promoting the benefits of organic and farm to table foods. The demand grew quickly with the resurgence of farmers markets and the rise in popularity of pick-your-own farms.
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This year, the Food Navigator, a leader in food and beverage trends, reported that among many consumers there is a growing distrust of how food is made, packaged and sold. They estimate over the last two years, those that are skeptical of box-food stores have grown from about 10 percent of consumers to as high as 24 percent.
According to a related study, consumers are trending toward gathering information about food from farmers, family, nutritionists, and healthcare workers and relying less on information from major food suppliers.
In the study, prepared by Ketchum Consumer Relations, found that 69 percent of skeptical consumers, which it dubbed "food evangelists," believe fresh food, whether organic or naturally grown, is better than packaged food, 54 percent say the best food comes from local farmers, and 49 percent trust the quality of food from a farmer or local retailer over supermarkets.
University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences economist Brenna Ellison suggests the trend is opening doors for local farmers by providing a broader base of urban customers willing to seek out their fresh food products at select stores and farmers markets.
Ellison and her team conducted an experiment with 605 people who evaluated a food product's expected taste, nutrition, safety, and likelihood of purchase. The products were strawberries and chocolate sandwich cookies sold under a fictitious brand. One of the objectives of the study was to determine if consumers would choose an organic or fresh food product on the basis of it taste or the health benefits it provided.
"We chose strawberries and cookies because they represent a 'virtue' and a 'vice' product, respectively, and both are currently available in the marketplace in organic and non-organic forms," Ellison says.
The results were mixed and interesting. The study also was designed to determine if organic (natural) or non-organic labeling would influence consumer buying decisions.
"Organic strawberries had higher expected taste ratings than non-organic strawberries, but cookie taste ratings did not differ," Ellison says. "However, the opposite was true with nutrition ratings. Organic cookies were rated as more nutritious -- almost twice as healthy -- as non-organic cookies, but no difference was observed for strawberry ratings."
Ellison said results suggest that the purchase of natural/organic virtue foods like strawberries may be based more on taste considerations, but organic vice foods like cookies may be purchased based on nutrition considerations.
In a related study, price considerations at specialty and smaller retail outlets and farmers markets were not as important to a majority of consumers as taste and nutrition consideration, an indication that consumers are likely willing to pay a little more for food they trust and that is locally grown over standard grocery-store variety foods.
Researchers and economists say these and other studies indicate the market for locally grown foods is growing rapidly and offers greater opportunities for farmers who are able to utilize direct-marketing, at least as an important part of their marketing plans.