A cultural disconnect

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About the author
Reporter, KBIA
Jessica Naudziunas was Harvest's reporter in Columbia, Mo. from summer 2010 through spring 2012.

Red and Moe Pizzeria is one of the newest restaurants in Columbia, Mo., to use “local” as a selling point.

No frozen or pre-prepared ingredients. And you can smell how fresh the garlic and basil is from several feet away.

Who’s eating here? Mostly so-called “foodies,” people willing and able to pay $19 to dine on thin-crust pizza topped with local mushrooms.

Or as owner Tom Ripetto put it: “People who have sensitivity to what they are taking into their body.”

But that’s not everyone. Ripetto knows — quite personally — some people don’t care about local food.

“My wife is a good example,” he said. “She says it’s hard to understand what to do with some of these products. And she goes to the store and she keeps hearing me say ‘did you get this local, did you get this local?’ She takes offense to it. She doesn’t want to do it. It’s like trying to tell someone to ‘quit smoking because it’s bad for you. Don’t tell me that again! I know it’s bad for me, but I want to smoke!’”

But there’s actually more to this cultural divide than foodie vs. non-foodie.

Some food advocates are concerned that someone important is missing at restaurants like Red and Moe and at the local farmers market: lower-income consumers.

These underserved members of the community are often not comfortable with the local food concept even though they have much to gain, said Vera Massey, a nutrition and health education specialist at the University of Missouri in Columbia.

“It could be the cost, but it could be: ‘these aren’t foods that I even normally eat, so why would I go there?’” she said.

Erin Harris is coordinator of the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) Program for the Columbia-Boone County Health Department, helping low-income women feed their families, said the issue is often the farmers market itself.

“There are a large percentage of moms who would feel very uncomfortable, even just taking their kids. It’s not a recreational visit for them. It’s ‘I have to learn how to do this; how do I figure this out?’ It’s kind of stressful,” she said. “The farmer may start asking questions; they may not be ready for that.”

Being comfortable with fresh food does matter. Research institute PolicyLink found in its 2008 study, The Grocery Gap, that access to food influences eating behaviors. In short: if the only place to buy food in your neighborhood is a convenience store, your eating habits may reflect what is available there.

Darah Oxford, a mother of two, understands the challenge. Even with their high academic achievements and coming from well-off families, she and her husband barely make ends meet. Oxford relies on the Columbia Food Bank, food stamps and WIC dollars. But when meeting with her WIC coordinator, she noticed that she doesn’t really fit in.

“I think the typical woman or family on a public assistance program I would assume, didn’t finish school, can’t find a job,” she said. “They seem a lot different from me, that’s for sure.”

Oxford tries to feed her family fresh food from the farmers market but said it’s often too expensive for her budget. And she recognizes a cultural divide when she shops there.

“To me it feels really comfortable and welcoming,” she said. “But, to someone here who is not used to buying those things or shopping in that way…I could see how it might be a little overwhelming for them.”

There’s a learning curve on the other side, too.

“We live in our own little world,” said local farmer Dan Kuebler. “We need to sort of step out of our little world sometimes and really have to understand the people who you are wanting to serve.”

Kuebler is on the planning committee for a grant-based federal program called Access to Healthy Foods.
Part of the mission is to make it easier for those on food stamps to break into the local food scene, where healthy options are plentiful.  In the works: A mentoring program that would pair new, reluctant shoppers to the market with someone who’s already given it a try.

“I’m limited in my knowledge of where they are coming from. I’m just a stranger to them. So, we’re finding that they need to talk to people they know,” Kuebler said.

But, it’s not easy. In Columbia, if you receive WIC checks, you can’t use them at the farmers market. So it often comes down to a question of budget — spend precious cash at the market, or use your WIC check to buy all your food in one trip, in one building, with one stop … at an everyday low price.

Enter: Wal-Mart Stores.

The nation’s biggest retailer is going big into local food.  And food sourced through local farms will amount to 9 percent of the chain’s in-store choices by 2015, said Kory Lundberg, who works in Walmart’s sustainability arm.

“Customers are interested in those things, and customers are looking for them, but they don’t have the access to them. That’s what Walmart can do, bring that trend or that niche product to customers and kind of make it available to everyone, kind of democratize that product, and make it available to everyone,” Lundberg said.

This is where business, access and health collide.

“It’s impossible to force someone to care or take particular action, but I do think from a business perspective, what a lot of grocery stores have found, farmers markets have found, other types of retail outlets, is that it’s a smart business decision to care about your consumers and to care about your customers,” said Rebecca Flournoy associate director of PolicyLink

The future of a thriving local food industry depends on accessibility – reaching people in the same way that cheap, conventional foods do. For local farmers, it’s more important now to reach consumers from all walks of life, not just those who have the privilege to choose.

Harvest Public Media is committed to fully exploring issues of food, fuel and field. Toward that end, our coverage often leads to a series of stories on a given topic. We consider these special efforts to be ongoing — agriculture, after all, is an ever-evolving cornerstone of the U.S. economy. And we welcome your feedback and suggestions on what we should look at next.

- Donna Vestal, editor, Harvest Public Media