Paying more, or paying less

Listen to this story
"I will pay the higher price to get the local product,” says Kevin Shinn (left), who owns Bread & Cup, a restaurant in downtown Lincoln, Neb. He works with vendors at the farmers market to source local food. (Photo by Clay Masters/Harvest Public Media)
About the author
Reporter, Iowa Public Radio
Clay Masters reports for Iowa Public Radio. He previously reported for Harvest Public Media while based at NET Nebraska.

Would you pay more for local food? Or would you expect to pay less?

The answer is often found in the geography — basically, where (and when) you shop.

And those options are expanding rapidly. With demand for local food growing — from an estimated $4 billion in 2002 to as much as $7 billion in 2012 – more restaurants and grocery stores are joining the market.

“It’s really gotten going in last three to five years. And some of that interest seems to be just since we’ve had the recession hit,” said James Quinn, a University of Missouri regional horticultural specialist.

He pointed out that some people who lost jobs in the recession decided to try out small-scale food production. And a lot of these new farmers sell their product through farmers markets, where prices are relatively low.

“Then you go to your urban or upscale markets and those seem to be at the grocery store price level or higher,” Quinn said.

Some people are willing to pay that premium.

“If given a choice, I will always lean toward the local supplier, even if it’s more expensive. I will pay the higher price to get the local product,” said Kevin Shinn, who owns Bread & Cup, a restaurant in downtown Lincoln, Neb., that specializes in locally sourced food.

But for most consumers, the question of local vs. non-local prices is most apparent at the grocery store.

Tom Hobt, vice president of perishables for Hy-Vee food stores in Des Moines, said the market seems to balance itself.

“The price is really going to be a factor of how good the growing season is for any one of those items,” he said. “But to put a sign on something, to identify it as locally grown, we still have to be price competitive on that. So really, what the market bears is how we price our items (at Hy-Vee)”

Research by Rich Pirog in 2009 did find that overall it was cheaper to buy locally produced fruits and vegetables.

But Pirog, who was with the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University in Ames, said that’s not the whole picture when looking at the expense of local food.

“One would have to look at the entire market basket,” he said.

And that’s a tricky assessment.

“We did make an attempt to look at lean ground beef, pork (and) eggs that were sold in local butcher shops, natural foods shops, etc., and it was very difficult to make the comparison from a research basis,” Pirog said. “Attributes are never exactly the same.”



More from this special report

HomeFields: Digging into the local food 'advantage'