Ten years ago, local food was high on the nation’s radar. First Lady Michelle Obama planted a high-profile vegetable garden on the White House’s South Lawn, farm-to-table cuisine had just hit its stride, and the number of farmers’ markets had blossomed, from 3,000 in 1999 to more than 5,000 in 2009.
Today—at least on the surface—some of that popularity appears to have waned, as a number of large companies have gotten into the game, and the act of supporting nearby farms no longer seems especially new or radical. And while farmers’ markets have continued to grow in the last 10 years, the growth has slowed down substantially; as of 2019, there are more than 8,800 in the U.S.
At the heart of the challenge is the fact that local food is seen as inaccessible to many. And, as companies like Amazon have come to dominate retail, convenience has begun to outweigh many other factors for consumers—taking many one more step away from understanding the source of our food. Still, in recent years, concerns about climate change and globalization have helped drive support for local food, and new models, like food hubs and farm-to-school programs have helped individual producers access larger markets.
To mark Civil Eats’ 10th anniversary, we’re conducting a series of roundtable discussions throughout the year in an effort to take an in-depth look at many of the most important topics we’ve covered since 2009. In the conversation below, we invited four experts to talk about their work on local food, as well as trends in the field and potential solutions.
Pakou Hang is the executive director and co-founder of the Hmong American Farmers Association, a social justice organization that was created to build community wealth among Hmong American farmers and their families. Sibella Kraus is the founder of Sustainable Agriculture Education (SAGE), as well as the founder and former director of Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA), which created San Francisco’s iconic Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market. Dawn Thilmany is a professor at Colorado State University’s College of Agricultural Sciences. And Debra Tropp recently retired from her position as the deputy director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Marketing Services Division.
Civil Eats’ editor-in-chief Naomi Starkman and associate editor Christina Cooke facilitated the discussion, which has been edited for clarity and length.
In 2007, the term “locavore” was named the Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year. What has changed most in the public’s perception about the term “local” since then?
Debra Tropp: In the early 2000s, most of the people who were interested in purchasing local were doing it for environmental reasons. This was a period when Rich Pirog conducted a study on food miles and other people were looking at carbon footprints. Local was still very much considered a niche idea, and it was pretty much the core consumers of organic and natural foods who were interested in local and understanding its relationship.
Now, people aren’t looking strictly at local as [a] geographic [concept]; I think they’re looking at it being about transparency and the degree of relationship. The more information they’re able to get directly from the farmer, the more ingredients listed on packaging, that has become much more an important component of local than it might have been in the early days.
And I think people want to make change with their pocketbooks. They want to support the kind of food that comes from people working and producing food in accordance with their values. That has been a major impetus for a lot of the change that we’ve seen in the past 10 to 12 years.
Dawn Thilmany: It really has evolved quite a bit. The other two concepts I would throw in are this idea of civic agriculture—local went back to knowing, engaging, and linking with your local area. That was not where we were at first. It was a marketing claim and it was just kind of a cool concept.
And then the other is the idea of bringing culture back into agriculture. People have embraced their local foodshed as a part of the local culture they want to be proud of and know more about, even if they didn’t grow up there or come from there. There’s now a ton of engagement with the stories of food and [the idea] that a part of a vibrant, creative economy—and even an arts district—includes bringing the unique aspects of a city’s food culture into play.
Sibella Kraus: One other thing I’d add, on the environmental side, is the idea of agriculture as green infrastructure. The work we’ve done around the Bay Area—we’ve seen tremendous success, even recently, with the preservation of the 7,500-acre Coyote Valley. San Jose, which has been one of the primary proponents of sprawl, ended up putting $50 million into protecting that land in perpetuity. And that was in part because it was sold as “green infrastructure.” I think there’s the sense that the landscape yields food, but it also yields important ecosystems services.
Tropp: Just to back that up with an East Coast example, in my county, Montgomery County, Maryland, we have an agricultural reserve that was actually envisioned in the late ’70s. The idea was to have open land that was free from standard development pressures. Now we’re seeing an interest in supporting the ag businesses that are able to thrive because of the agricultural reserve.
Kraus: There are several examples here [in the Bay Area] along those lines. There’s the acclaimed Santa Clara Valley Agricultural Plan for a county scale, and we’ve been long informed by the examples from Montgomery County [that Debra mentioned]. Again, it’s an integrated approach, including land protection, investment in infrastructure, accommodation, and support for new farmers, and also major public education programs.
Pakou Hang: I want to answer the question [about how the term local has changed] in two ways. The first way is from the farmer’s perspective. In the early ’80s and ’90s, and even in 2007, the word “local” for us was much more quantity and metrics, or numbers. Throughout metro areas, at least in Minnesota, your farm had to be located 50 or 75 miles from the farmers’ market. Nowadays, local really describes the relationship that farmers have with their customers that’s built around social capital, so both the trustworthiness and the depth and the presence of a relationship.
In 2007, the consumer was a novice. The word “local” was a strange word and maybe it denoted a sense of elitism or a niche, and maybe it was intimidating. Nowadays, from the public perspective, localism is more about a community-minded way of putting the farmer at the forefront and centering food around farmers. For me, that is really refreshing and gets at the kind of social capital that’s been built in the past couple of years.
Ten years ago, farmers’ markets were seen by some as a panacea. But today, it’s become clear that they’re not necessarily the best or most efficient way to distribute local food for farmers or consumers. What is your take on the current and future state of farmers’ markets in the United States?
Hang: I still believe in the power of farmers’ markets. I still believe in the face-to-face contact with the farmer, seeing them, seeing their family, being in relationship with them, understanding that maybe the farm is not certified organic, but I have seen Fred every weekend for the past 10 years at the farmers’ market; I am in community with him—community, not just as a noun, but a verb.
I still believe that farmers’ markets are the best places to get our food. But people’s lives are really busy, and we are being introduced to different modes of consumerism. They might think that the ease of Amazon is better than the community and relationship-building at the farmers’ market. They might not know what they’re missing. I can see where that is going to be a struggle as a business model.
There is a little bit of a paradox, because farmers’ markets were actually doing really, really well until everybody wanted their own and then every suburb, every neighborhood [got one], and it became over-saturated. And then people say, “Oh, farmers’ markets are not in vogue anymore.” But it was never the farmers’ market; it was always these other folks who wanted to get in on the farmers’ market. We’re almost saying the farmers’ markets are the culprit of their own demise, but I don’t think that’s true.
What do I think is the future? Farmers’ markets continue to be the best reflection of any community. That’s where people from all different ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds come together. That’s where you have the most intimate relationship with the people who are growing your food and—whether we know it or not—people have a hunger for that.
Kraus: The markets I’m involved in, the one I founded, the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market, and the one closer to me where I shop every week, fulfill two major criteria for farmers’ markets. One, they’re successful and profitable for the farmers who participate. And two, they are significant community gathering places. Those two things really need to work for markets to be successful.
It’s so much easier [now] to have food assistance benefits, SNAP benefits, at farmers’ markets. All of that technology has really changed. It’s been very important and helpful for a broader community to shop at farmers’ markets and also helpful for the farmers.
And places like Kaiser Permanente, a large HMO in the Bay Area, are hosting farmers’ markets, so pointing farmers’ markets to a particular [food insecure] population and making them as convenient and affordable as possible. The HMO wants to make sure that there’s this equivalence between healthy diets and eating lots of fresh fruits and vegetables. That’s been another development.
Thilmany: I could certainly give you the economist’s view, which is what it looks like on a profitability track. But a more interesting analogy I’ve developed this year is to our transportation infrastructure and thinking of our traditional food system as the interstate system and our farmers’ markets as our scenic byways.
The idea is that you want both. There are times when efficiency is key, and that interstate system allows us to move quickly and efficiently. But we have an increasing number of people who don’t like that tradeoff anymore. It’s not always about efficiency, time saving, or price. So these scenic byways have redeveloped, and farmers’ markets have been an important part of that fabric.
We are seeing consumers purchase food in a more fragmented way than they have since World War II. We were at a point where 95 percent of our food was going through the traditional retail food supermarket chains, and that is down at least 15 percent. People are making really deliberate choices about when it’s worthwhile to take the scenic byways and go to the farmers’ markets or the roadside stands or join a CSA [community-supported agriculture]. Even though that adds some transaction costs, they are voting not just with their dollars, like Deb said, they’re voting with their time.
Now we are probably saturated for the number of consumers who’ve decided that that share of their dollars can be spent [in less traditional ways]. And so we really want to think of farmers’ markets as incubators for producers who may need to eventually take the on-ramp and do a little bit of travel on the interstate using food hubs or distributors or farm-to-school or the other and intermediated markets.
Farmers’ markets can’t be the whole solution, but [the fact that] they are important as part of the portfolio for our food system is actually pretty well established.
Tropp: It’s important to recognize where we’ve come from. This requires us to go back probably another 10 years or so. Looking at the AMS [Agricultural Marketing Service] National Farmers’ Market Directory counts, in 1994, when the first one was published, the number of recorded farmers’ markets was 1,755. The latest one, from 2019, is over 8,700. Now, that being said, we have to remember this is voluntary data collection, so there were probably more than 1,755 markets in 1994. Whether it’s actually quadrupled the number or whether it’s tripled, we’ve had this tremendous increase that started plateauing around 2013-14. That’s not surprising, because with that kind of aggressive growth, you would expect some tapering off—and we’re still seeing modest increases year on year, more like 1 percent or a little less. That’s one issue to keep in mind.
I really appreciate Pakou’s comment about every community wanting their own farmers’ market—and I think there has been a level of cannibalism within the sector, because communities and community planners have seen the success of farmers’ markets in revitalizing certain neighborhoods, and everybody wants to be on that bandwagon, and it doesn’t always make economic sense.
One other thing would be [farmers’ market] demographics. What we keep hearing anecdotally, is that an aging, largely female population is driving a lot of the consumption at farmers’ markets. They are the most reliable consumers. People are also lining up well in advance if they happen to have access to senior nutrition assistance benefits.
As for the failure to attract people to farmers’ markets—is it a price barrier, because typically producers are trying to get the highest unit price for their product at a direct-to-consumer venue like a farmers’ market? Or is it that market hours don’t really take into account the variety and the diversity of consumers in a particular trade area?
Another point I’d like to mention has to do with eating and cooking habits. If you look at some of the statistics on the American Time Use Survey in recent years, you’ll see that Millennials do a whole lot less cooking from scratch than Boomers like me. And when you have an outlet that consists largely of fresh produce, one of the issues we have to tackle is how do we entice people to cook from scratch again? There are time constraints, and people are used to convenience, and that’s a challenge.
What I’ve seen producers do in response, especially those who are involved in farmers’ markets or CSAs, is look at hybrid models in marketing their food. Now that we’re starting to have data, and now that we’re starting to see some demand manifest in wholesale channels for locally produced and branded foods, people are trying to mix it up.
A few years back, I was involved in a cooperative research agreement with Tim Woods at the University of Kentucky on CSAs; we asked the question about CSA interest in diversifying market outlets. Large majorities were interested in selling to institutions—schools, colleges, and universities—if they could achieve the scale. I think we’re going to start to see a little less of the silos we’ve had in the past in terms of markets, but actually more people trying to have a broader portfolio of clients.
In addition to farmers’ markets and CSAs, food hubs, farm-to-school, and other direct-to-consumer and wholesale farm marketing efforts are ramping up local food sales. What are some of the challenges or constraints of those efforts with respect to moving local food to larger markets? And where has there been the biggest growth?
Thilmany: Challenges is one way to put it, but I think it’s more about how nimble and able food systems are to pivot into new spaces. The great thing about farmers’ markets is they have raised the morale of producers. But all of them would admit also there are tradeoffs in terms of the personal life.
You have to keep redoing the calculus. At some point in time, either to get the sales volume you need or because the farmers’ markets have chomped up all of your weekend days already, you need to start thinking about other markets. Intermediated markets did start getting a lot more attention probably seven or eight years ago, whether farm-to-school, food hubs, or farm-to-restaurant.
Some of the challenges [we found in coaching producers] at first were people not understanding how much their business model was going to have to change to start working within intermediated markets—on both the level of business sophistication and savvy that would be expected from some of those buyers, the price points, and then how to balance that portfolio again. All of those are big business questions, which none of us providing technical assistance had answers to, because no one had been working with this model long enough.
The same thing is happening in intermediated markets for local food [as happened with farmers’ markets] with the potential cannibalism. Food hubs became very favored among people in food systems. But we started looking at how much of the population you need to serve those—it’s significantly more than a farmers’ market, and it’s significantly more than a mainline wholesaler. We think we got to a point where we were supporting that so well through foundations and grants that we might have put too many food hubs on the ground.
Kraus: In the Bay Area, we have just completed the Bay Area Food Futures Roadmap, which covers the whole supply chain, from ag production to food service. And we’ve added on consumption and post consumption. But two major challenges in the Bay Area for, say, food manufacturing, local manufacturing, is real estate is really high. It’s often difficult for businesses to compete. And there’s a real labor shortage. People who may consider jobs for $35,000, $40,000, or $50,000 a year cannot afford to live in the Bay Area.
There’s a number of opportunities, too. As larger institutions are setting sustainability standards for their food purchasing, very often that has a component of local foods purchasing. I think that will help continue to drive the scaling up of local food. Kaiser, again, is saying that all food is going to meet their [corporate] sustainability standards by 2025, and there’s a good percentage that’s going toward local purchasing. Other policies, like the Good Food Purchasing policies, that also have a component of local production, are also helping drive that in a systematic way.[Pico_box]
Non-soil-based agriculture and new ideas and businesses trying out intensive urban greenhouse production for vegetables—that may well be part of what local means as well.
The work we’re doing with the San Jose Food Works Project has pushed the mayor’s office and the office of economic development there to say, “Look, your food system is essential for meeting many of your goals—for authenticity, diverse economic development, and public health.” And I think they’re beginning to come around to understanding that that is part of being a complete city and certainly one that has high climate [goals], like Climate Smart San Jose.
Hang: I work with about 100 Hmong immigrant farmers. Many of them have been farming for 20 or 30 years. They farm on five to 10 acres plots, and they’re growing about 50 varieties of produce—flowers, fruits, and vegetables. When we started working with our farmers, they were primarily selling all of their products to farmers’ markets. And there was a lot of hoping and praying that it all of it sold.
Ee started looking into schools, CSAs, and other institutions to purchase our farmers’ produce. We call this our alternative markets program. As a result, we now have a spring, summer, fall, and a Thanksgiving CSA. In totality, we probably have about 800 members.
We sell directly to four school districts and then through a food hub we sell also produce to about 22 school districts. In total, [it reaches] over 140,000 students. And then we also sell to wholesalers, restaurants, grocery stores, and a bunch of other places.
More and more, farmers are interested in the CSA model, because you continue to have that good price point and a good relationship with the customers. Ours is a workplace-based CSA. We drop it off on a certain day at a person’s workplace, and it’s really easy for them just to go downstairs, pick it up, and then go home, as opposed to having to go to the farmers’ market or the grocery store. People join the CSA not just because they want to get fresh produce, but there really is a values alignment and it makes more sense in people’s busy schedules.[Most] farmers prefer the CSA—and I think that there will be growth in CSAs. Second is the farmers’ market, because it will continue to be a place where community comes together; the price continues to be good for farmers. From there, you would have things like farm-to-school, wholesale, food hubs. Those all have potential for growth, but I also see that there are a lot of challenges, the biggest being pricing.
We support farm-to-school, and yet the prices are so low compared to any other markets that while farmers believe in making sure that kids have access to healthy food, it really is on the back of farmers. I think the larger question is equity—why it is that we are supporting healthy living in our community, but always on the backs of mostly Black and brown people? Whether it’s the Black and brown farmers, because we’re the ones who are trying to get food into the local system, or it’s Black and brown fieldworkers, who are picking the food.[On the subject of equity,] we work with immigrant farmers—many of the farmers don’t speak English. It’s such a struggle. And while I support all beginning and young farmers, I’ve seen in the past eight years, so many young white farmers gain access to capital, opportunities, and markets, even though they have less experience than our farmers, because of all of the generational inequities.
Tropp: Just because you’re a successful direct-to-consumer farmer does not mean you have the capacity to compete well, certainly individually, in institutional or wholesale sales. So how do you work with others to get the volume of produce that then has to be sorted and assessed and packaged appropriately to move into these wholesale spaces at a price point that’s acceptable?
Cooperative is a dirty word among many farmers in our country. And it has a lot to do with the fact that many have been burnt in cooperative relationships in the past, because it might require a certain amount of money pledged up front to be a member; they might require that everything you produce be sold through the cooperative. We have seen a little more success lately with some informal networks. But their success often depends on the strength of the management. The same is true of food hubs.
I think food hubs make sense. They’re not right for everybody, and they do require a certain management expertise that we don’t always see. However, I think if you look at recent reports like the annual or biannual surveys from Michigan State, you’ll see that many food hubs are continuing to do quite well.
The first time that my old agency started looking at aggregation was exactly 10 years ago. According to numbers I have, we saw local food hubs start to grow in about 2003-04. In 2005, we estimated there were about 80. Then they rose to close to 400 and have consolidated since then, in the last couple of years. So, again, a very rapid growth—lagging, of course, behind that of farmers’ markets, but resembling it in terms of the steep incline.
Some of the greatest struggles have to do with retailers. Even if everything is packed and labeled to spec and it’s in an amount they can accept, they still want individual GAP [Good Agricultural Practices] audits on a lot of incoming product—that remains a major challenge.
One positive is we’re starting to see a few more links between the traditional wholesale industry and the local food movement. I believe Good Eggs in San Francisco, which specializes in local delivery organic products, is co-located at the San Francisco wholesale produce market. Common Market, which has now moved into six states and has really emerged as a very strong member of the local food hub sector, also has one of its warehouses co-located with the Maryland wholesale produce market.
There’s been a great deal of local-washing over the years, with Frito-Lay and McDonald’s using language suggesting that they’re buying from small local farms. And there’s been a sizable backlash against local food. What’s the argument for eating local? What do you wish the average person understood about local food? What gives you hope for the future?
Thilmany: Local has really evolved to include civic pride and transparency. There is a good-sized set of consumers out there that really wants to reengage and make the change happen they want to see in the world, starting with the food system. That is one way to guard against local-washing and make it feel like there is still a role for this type of food system.
We did a study on [state branding programs] for Choices magazine. There are consumers who go to farmers’ markets and belong to CSAs who have lost trust in the traditional food system for one reason or another. There are also people who are lightly involved. State branding programs [like California Grown or Virginia’s Finest] are really the North Star for them. They’re doing their best to buy more locally, but, quite honestly, they’re not showing the discernment. They’re trusting that some of those programs can let them be lightly involved and perhaps not need to go make special shopping trips.
I think we should honor and be respectful of the fact that not everybody has to be the same to support this. But I think we also need to look for different levers we can pull so local-washing is less likely to happen as we move from selling local food directly to broader retail and wholesale markets where it’s going to be a little harder to see behind the curtain.
Kraus: Relationships add real nurturing value to the food we eat. Eating and cooking locally is also fun—there’s this great dynamic of what the season brings—and it also puts us in touch with some of the issues that the farmers face—there’s too much water, there’s not enough water, there’s heat, there’s early frosts. It gives us empathy for what farmers go through when we see some crops are short or early or late. Hopefully that creates an opportunity to [get more people] to look at policies that help support farmers and more directly address climate change.
Hang: We’re at this real moment where the words “local food” could go in one direction or another. In the same way that the word “family farmers” used to mean something, and now they’ve been co-opted to describe an operation of 1,000 or 5,000 acres. The same is true for the word “organic.”
I’m actually quite hopeful that local will stay true to its origins, which is focusing on small farmers who are using sustainable practices, who are values-driven. And I’m hopeful because I think about Millennials who, even though they’re cooking less, are also willing to let their values lead their buying practices. I’m really hopeful about all the folks in government who are interested in ways that we can think about conservation easements or zoning around land access so that we can get more people to come back to the farm. I’m hopeful about funders who are looking at projects that are people-of-color-led food aggregation sites or projects that really are putting equity in the food system. I’m hopeful about clinics and medical practitioners who are interested in exploring more ways that we can expand veggie or CSA boxes, and even artists who are looking at food and food systems.
One of the biggest challenges is climate change. Especially for small, local farmers, climate change is wreaking havoc every year. I’m still hopeful because I think that there is an awareness and a consciousness building among people who care about equity, who care about sustainable practices, who care about seven generations in the future.
Tropp: I’m excited that local food is also leading towards re-envisioning our agricultural system, looking at decentralizing agriculture, which in many ways I think fulfills both meanings of food security—that we have access to enough food, and that we’re allowing more people to take control over their destiny when it comes to the type of food they access. As public policy objectives, I think those are both important and timely.
I would also like to give a shout-out to a lot of the work that Dawn and others like Shermain Hardesty have done in recent years. Now that we’ve been able to start collecting the data on farms that supply local food, we see that they generally have greater job creation effects because the proportion of labor as a percentage of their farm expenditures is greater.
We are seeing many more community planners becoming interested in the potential of food and agriculture to be an engine of economic growth in their communities. I’ve been privileged enough to be a part of many workshops, through an interagency initiative called Local Food, Local Places, which, interestingly enough, is hosted by the EPA. The agency’s office of resilient communities is doing it, because they’re interested in looking at how to reinvigorate neighborhoods, especially downtown neighborhoods, and using local food as an anchor for that economic growth. And we have many success stories to share along those lines.
Food is one of those things that cannot be outsourced. It’s something we can work on, especially in rural America. It’s an important tool for generating economic growth and community engagement; it is part of resilience structure. It is helping to improve quality of life and improving the access to all of the capitals that one might want to measure—financial, community, natural, and social capital. We have many reasons to feel positive, and we have yet to see this idea fully realized!
Top photo: Martin Rodriguez sells his vegetables at the Corona Farmers Market in Queens, New York, one of the most dynamic and diverse farmers’ markets in the city that is steps off the subway and mass transit system. (USDA Photo by Preston Keres)