Farm to Table: Implementing Local Foods into an Everyday Diet

Analysing the Impacts of Consumer Markets on Local Economy and National Health
The first meeting North Atherton Farmers Market in 2024 - Photo credits to Massimo Ragonese
The first meeting North Atherton Farmers Market in 2024 – Photo credits to Massimo Ragonese

The Obesity Epidemic, SSBs, and Corporate Production

It is no secret that the United States diet needs to change. 

The American Obesity crisis began in the 1970s, with the prevalence of obesity doubling in the following thirty years. This epidemic is not centralized, existing across all age groups, genders, and races (Casas, et al, 2022). There is no one origin for the obesity epidemic—various social and economic issues, bolstered in the modern climate, contribute to the growing problem (Temple 2022). This crisis, while not wholly attributed to a “toxic food environment”, still exists in part to our dieting, such as the overconsumption of ultra-processed foods (UPFs) and sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) (Calcaterra, et al, 2023).

SSBs are classified as any liquids that are sweetened by any additional forms of sugar, such as dextrose, high fructose corn syrup, or brown sugar (Curhan & Forman, 2010). SSBs are “the largest source of added sugar in the diet; a typical 12 fl oz (355 ml) serving of soda delivers 35.0–37.5 g of sugar and 140–150 calories” (Malik & Hu, 2022), with the recommended intake of added sugar standing at no more than 36 grams for men and 25 grams for women (Pacheco, et al, 2020). In 2014, 63% of adults in America were reported to consume one or more SSBs a day, with the number rising as high as 76.4% in Hawaii or 73.2% in Wyoming (Kumar, et al, 2014). 

While SSBs may not be uniquely responsible for obesity, they represent a large part of the descent of the American diet into mass production and artificiality (White 2008). Over the last 3 decades in particular, these ‘cheap food’ policies have exacerbated the negative impacts of an industrialized agriculture on the health of the agro-ecosystem, as well as on the health of the humans who must share and be sustained by it. Sustainability and health are two sides of the same food system coin” (Wallinga 2009). 

It is important to look at the foods we eat, as well as where those foods come from. If the agricultural industry continues to decline by relying on overproduced foods such as SSBs, so too will the American diet decline. 

The quality of a product received by a consumer is dependent on the source of the product. Symbiotically, the success of the source of a product is dependent on the reception of consumers: “Having access to consumer preferences allows retail to take on the guardianship of consumer interests and dictate what and how much to produce to upstream actors” (Rao, et al, 2023). 

Professor Archie Carroll created the pyramid of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) to represent the obligation of a corporation to exist for themselves and their community (Carroll 1991). The pyramid prioritizes profitability over legality, ethics, or philanthropy. Corporate “guardianship” is represented in philanthropic ideals, though this philanthropy is often abandoned for profitability. The CSR pyramid prioritizes such profility over any other sector of corporate governance: legality, ethics, and philanthropy. This mirrors the corporate market of food production which prioritizes UPFs.

“UPFs are not simply foods that have been modified by processing, but rather edible products formulated from food-derived substances, along with additives that heighten their appeal and durability. UPFs are designed and manufactured for maximum profit: they contain low-cost ingredients, have long shelf-lives, are hyper-palatable, and are highly branded and marketed to consumers” (GFRP 2021). 

A market that does not benefit its consumers is one which is not beneficial at all. However, the corporate market is not the only market available. 

The Consumer Market

Consumer markets (referring to a market sourced and located locally as opposed to externally) often prioritize the quality of a product over the cost of production. Janet Robinson is the owner of The Piper’s Peck in State College. Her business sells salsas and pepper jellies made of produce grown on their property. Her main avenue of distribution is through local farmer’s markets.

“Farmers markets are a great way to engage the public in talking about local food and giving them an opportunity to experience what it’s all about,” Robinson said.

Farmers markets were first introduced to America in the early 20th century to various consumer reception. Some believed that farmers markets would benefit local economies, citing multiple reasons like its “encouragement of farmers of the vicinity to produce more” or the tendency to “solve the city’s problem of making available an adequate food supply at reasonable costs” (Kerby & McFall 1921). Others believed that farmers markets would be a short-lived trend, stating “the farmer’s retail market does not appear to be growing in importance” (Sherman & Wells 1927).

Despite the beliefs of Sherman & Wells, farmers markets are extremely prevalent in the United States and continue to grow (Ahn, et al, 2014). In 2021, farmer’s markets represented a large portion of Direct-to-Consumer (DTC) food sales, serving as 23.5% of the 8.7 billion dollars contributed by DTC outlets (Martinez & Park 2021).

The demand for such markets is indicative of the aforementioned agroecosystem decline: “The search for authenticity and connection to food and agriculture has created a cultural momentum heightening the demand for quality local foods produced using environmentally and socially conscious methods. This desire of consumers to know where their food comes from and how it was produced stems, in part, from corporate consolidation in the food system and the resulting, at least perceived, negative consequences for public health and farm viability” (Warsaw, et al, 2021). This sentiment was echoed by that of Robinson.

“Farmers markets are a great way to engage the public in talking about local food and giving them an opportunity to experience what it’s all about,” Robinson said. “It keeps the food dollars in the community and keeps the farmers and other local producers employed. We have the opportunity to encourage healthy eating habits which positively impact any community. Customers can talk directly to the farmer that grew their food, they know exactly where it came from and how it’s grown, and can learn ways of using or preparing what they purchase.”

Direct-to-consumer markets allow a connection between consumer and producer, beyond that of business. By viewing the producer, talking with them, experiencing their world, and seeing their work, a consumer is able to empathize with the producer. This connection goes both ways. 

Feasibility and Implementation

The largest issue in terms of contributing and engaging in local markets is that of where it is financially worth it. Bob Ricketts is the owner of Fasta & Ravioli Co., a fresh pasta and sauce producer who sells their product at farmers markets. His perspective is centered around such financial disparities. 

“It’s not that it’s difficult [to implement local foods],” Ricketts said. “They are typically more expensive. Anyone who is food sensitive, it is harder to justify the increased price when you can get a generic substitute for less price.”

In 2010, organic egg prices were 82% higher than their non-organic counterparts, with fresh produce being the highest cost differential between the two categories (Carlson 2016). This difference exists because of how expensive livestock is for small farms. In 2020, the cost of Livestock upkeep nationally was $39.6 billion (Boess, et al, 2021). Larger, corporate farms have greater allowances for such expenditures, while smaller, local farms struggle to justify the upkeep, resulting in increased prices for similar products. Chain grocery stores also used “integration of manufacturing and wholesaling to cut out middlemen and offer lower prices” (Breneman, et al, 2009), granting them greater ability to limit costs.

Farmers markets are important to continue, as they act as a way for low-income and food-sensitive consumers to gain access to healthy produce but they are not universally accessible. While farmer’s markets are “less expensive, require less space, and can be quicker to implement than programs that encourage new store development” (Breneman, et al, 2009), they struggle to see immediate change and often lose to the larger competition, as well as lacking the maintenance and community/organizational support to continue. 

Residents of Hawai‘i, especially those on the islands of Hawai‘i, Maui, and Kaua‘i, who live in food deserts and depend on food assistance programs, have little access to fresh produce at farmers’ markets. Most of the markets on these islands do not participate in food assistance programs and their hours of operation are limited. This lack of fresh, healthy food is known to increase the risk of obesity and other diet-related chronic conditions. In Hawai‘i, a lack of fresh and healthy food could be a contributor to the overweight and obesity rate of 56.9% in 2017. In 2017, the national prevalence of overweight (35.3%) and obesity (31.6%) was 66.9% In 2017, the prevalence of diabetes in Hawai‘i was 9.2%” (Brace, et al, 2020).

However, if farmer’s markets are implemented, they can do actual good in a community. They allow lower-income families access to higher-quality foods and allow them to become educated on the location of their produce. The first step in implementing these foods into a diet is simply participating in local markets. Local foods cannot be implemented into a diet if an effort is not made.

Even if farmers markets are not available, there are other forms of accessing local foods. For example, community gardens have begun to be created in multiple urban areas where rural producers are not viable (Twiss, et al, 2003), as well as increasing physical activity and increasing urban greening (Westphal 2003). 

Contributing to consumer markets is important to a diet because of the foods’ healthiness and reliability, as well as their connection to the local community and economy. The continuance of such markets is reliant on consumer interaction and engagement.

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