A recent survey of grocery shoppers commissioned by Whole Foods Market gives new credence to a belief that's taken hold in the sustainable food movement over the past few years: when it comes to consumer preferences, local is the new organic.
Forty-seven percent of the 2,274 adults polled in the online survey said that they would be willing to pay more for fruit, vegetables, meat and cheese produced near their homes. That's a far larger share than those that said they would pay more for food without artificial ingredients (32 percent), meat made without antibiotics or hormones (30 percent) or "handmade, small-batch or artisanal and specialty foods" (20 percent).
The Whole Foods survey didn't specifically ask whether the customers would be willing to pay more for organic produce. But answers to another question indicated that one in four respondents spend at least a quarter of their grocery money on "organic and/or natural products."
A.C. Gallo, the president and COO of Whole Foods, explained that consumers' interest in local food is relatively new.
"Ten or 15 years ago, the organic label was more important to our customers," Gallo told The Huffington Post. "But we started to feel, over the last five to seven years, that our customers were more interested in buying produce that's local."
Organics remain a growth area at Whole Foods, Gallo said; certain customers, especially those with small children, care more about organic certification than they do about geographic provenance. Gallo also noted that organic produce tends to sell well in Northeast in the winter, when local produce is all-but-unavailable.
But William Hallman, director of the Food Policy Institute at Rutgers, told The Huffington Post that the tide has turned away from organics and toward local food in the past-half decade. "Local is newer and is more of a hot topic than organic," Hallman explained. "Organic has gone mainstream. Walmart is the largest vendor of organic produce in the world today."
Hallman, a psychologist, said that consumers associate local food closely with freshness and organic food with healthfulness. Those are both compelling benefits, and economic studies have indicated that consumers are generally willing to pay about an equal premium for organic and local foods. But in the real world, local produce is often cheaper than organic produce -- tipping the scales in its favor, and driving up demand.
Gallo said that Whole Foods is also doing its part to meet that demand. Corporate headquarters in Austin empowered the managers of individual stores to seek out local farms growing produce that might appeal to customers. In 2006, the company hired its first two full-time "foragers," who were tasked with finding small-scale farms that would be able to sell produce to Whole Foods in the Seattle metro area. In the next six years, Whole Foods hired 18 more foragers to do the same thing in 12 different regions. In 2007, the company set aside $10 million to provide low-interest loans to good farms that needed a large infusion of capital in order to grow produce on the scale required for Whole Foods. Since then, the company has loaned a total of $8 million to 120 different producers.
Whole Foods representatives refused to disclose sales figures for local produce, so it's not yet clear whether the investment in local food has paid off. But Whole Foods Market stock prices hit an all-time high this week, despite an overall softness in the market. And going forward, Gallo sees some strong upsides to local, even beyond growing consumer interest.
"If we went into a period of extremely high fuel prices, then it would be an advantage to source as much local as possible," he said. "It could get to a point where shipping organic apples from Washington to New York becomes prohibitively expensive."
One factor that Hallman did not see boosting local food over organic, though, was a recent, highly-publicized study from Stanford indicating that the health benefits of organic produce had been overblown.
"We're extraordinarily resistant to changing our opinions, even in the face of data," he explained. "People who think organic food is healthy will continue to buy organic, and just ignore this study. And the people who don't buy organic and are scoffing at it will use this study to confirm their beliefs."