Family farms remain a vital pillar in supporting healthy lives in the U.S. In 2014, Indiana ranked as the eighth most profitable farming state in terms of cash receipts (USDA). Yet about 90% of food consumed in Indiana is imported from remote locations. Easy availability of commodity foods has shifted the food economy to promote convenience over nutrition. Consistent access to local, nutritious food is suffering as a consequence.
Many consumers do not value or understand the local food economy. This is problematic because the economic vitality of small farms is inherently connected to local food security, the reliable access to nutritious food by all people in a geographic area. Farmers who cannot sell their crops locally must sell to wholesale distributors. In doing so, Indiana farmers and consumers relinquish control over locally grown food. Enabling consumers to see the value in eating local food through a social marketing behavior change campaign would improve the economic security of food producers and ensure access to seasonal, nutritious food by all consumers in the region.
The Indiana State Department of Agriculture encourages the creation of local food hub programs in viable regions to increase circulation of Indiana-grown foods. The national food hub community does a good job of enticing consumers with arts events, classes, speaker series, and other activities to sustain the support of “local foodies.” However, those outreach efforts rarely make contact with new audience members, targeting only the interests of existing users. To reach a new audience, especially low-income residents who would benefit most from a nearby, affordable, healthy food hub, new outreach methods should be employed. Using examples from the bottom-up community mobilization work of Sasha Costanza-Chock and similar cases like Michigan’s Double-Up Food Bucks program, the food hub value campaign will engage new users by investigating and responding to the unique needs and interests of food consumers in Muncie.
It would be impossible to change consumer behavior without connecting with their values. Further, it would be impossible to engage consumers without capturing and holding their interest. This project will use entertainment, incentives, and participatory activities to engage consumers and inspire them to change their behavior in support of a local food system. Partnering with local affinity groups, church communities and other social groups will connect consumers to the food hub while simultaneously strengthening personal relationships. Participants at fun events like food and drink tastings or cooking competitions will share their experience with friends and family, encouraging others to visit the food hub. Coupons and other incentives will provide a reason for consumers to return to the food hub or visit for the first time. Of course, all events will be broadcast over social media, so consumers can share their stories about local food and the food hub.
The general research objective of this project is to find out how to best engage consumers to change their food buying behavior to support the local economy. Investigating what consumers value about buying food and other products is an important step in determining how they will identify with benefits offered through a local food hub. Identifying specific barriers to buying local food will dictate what behaviors and solutions the campaign should focus on. Finally, it is important to understand the audience’s prefered method for consuming content so that messages are transmitted over the most effective media. These research aims will be fulfilled through focus groups, ethnographic research, and individual interviews about retail systems.
Establishing a conversation around the benefits of consuming regionally produced food will help consumers connect their values to food buying. Prioritizing local food buying and distribution by a majority of consumers will decrease pollution from transporting imported food and bolster the health and food security of all individuals. Creating open dialog between the food hub, producers, and consumers will also ensure that the local food model adapts to the needs of their consumers. The closed-loop system will mutually benefit consumers, producers, and the economy.