Is Local Food just a Trend?

**This column originally appeared in the July 11, 2015, edition of the Traverse City Record-Eagle

When people ask me if the Local Food Movement is just a trend, my answer is no, it’s here to stay and this is just the beginning.

The way people think about food is evolving — that much is clear. Their food purchasing decisions are reflecting more awareness about health, environmental sustainability and the implications individual purchasing can have on the local community — socially and economically.

And that is good news; because those are things that help customers form purchasing habits, which in turn dictate the direction of any successful business.

So, how strongly do we feel about buying healthy, local food? According to the 2014 Cone Communications Report on Food Issues, “Nearly nine-out-of-10 Americans (89 percent) say they consider where a product is produced when making food purchasing decisions.”

Those conscious purchasing habits lead directly to dollars. The USDA estimates that “local food sales have grown from about $5 billion in 2008 to $11.7 billion in 2014.” That is why, now that many regional or smaller-scale grocers have committed to sourcing locally, bigger chains like Wal-Mart & Meijer are starting to pay closer attention, seeing the business benefits and making new commitments to increasing their local food purchasing, too.

The same effect is influencing restaurants. The National Restaurant Association found that “locally sourced meats and seafood” and “locally sourced produce” earned the top two spots while surveying customers to determine the list of 2014 Top Food Trends.

Clearly, the Local Food Movement is gaining traction. Awareness about the benefits of local food is spreading, more customers are shopping for it, and businesses are listening.

However, local food’s new, ‘trendy’ identity certainly comes with some challenges for both consumers and industry leaders to meet. There is now the potential for disingenuous approaches that dilute the meaning behind the movement. After all, a true commitment to local food involves strong community relationships and lots of transparency in business. So don’t be afraid to ask questions, and always insist on the real thing.

As the interest in local food grows, the need to sift through imitations is just one in a number of growing pains this industry will encounter. How the industry evolves and how the movement deals with that growth will determine just how far it goes.

Yet, the big reason local food is destined for permanence is a simple one: Once you’re aware of the direct relationship food has on your health and wellbeing, you never forget it. And, as the movement grows, its health and economic benefits for the greater community become too large to overlook.

The local food movement isn’t just a trend. It’s an evolution. And it’s just beginning.