What does “local food” mean to Wisconsin consumers?

Wisconsin consumers widely agree that “local” food means food grown in Wisconsin, according to a new statewide survey conducted by faculty affiliated with UW-Extension, UW-Madison, and UW-River Falls. Food from Michigan, Iowa, Illinois, and Minnesota, meanwhile, is not considered “local” by most Wisconsin shoppers.

Researchers aimed to provide farmers and communities with strategies informed by Wisconsin-specific data to support local food marketing efforts throughout the state. A random sample of Wisconsin households was surveyed in 2015, and findings and recommendations are available in a new report, “Wisconsin Consumers and Local Food: Public Opinion, Trends & Marketing Recommendations.”

“Because there is not a universal definition of local, it’s important to understand what consumers in Wisconsin believe,” explains Bret Shaw, environmental communication specialist for UW-Extension and associate professor at UW-Madison in the Department of Life Sciences Communication, who co-authored the report. “Many people here also accept 50 miles from them as a definition for local, but there is less agreement when the definition is food from 100 miles away. Feelings about local food might be less about a specific distance, and more about loyalty to our state.”

The researchers also examined if opinions about the definition of local varied by region in the state, and found that most consumers reject the idea that food from neighboring states is local, regardless of their location in Wisconsin. “The one exception was that respondents in Northwest Wisconsin were more likely to accept Minnesota as a definition for local,” says David Trechter, a report co-author. Trechter is the Director of the UW-River Falls Survey Research Center and professor of Agricultural Economics at UW-River Falls.

Researchers also found that consumers agree local produce is fresh and tasty and helps support local farmers. They suggest marketing local food with words and images related to those concepts for the widest reach. There is less agreement about other potential benefits of local produce suggesting that messages related to health and the environment, which are more popular specifically with liberal consumers, would be less effective.

“Overall, conservative, moderate and liberal shoppers said they bought local produce and local non-produce items equally,” says Shaw. “These groups also visit farmers’ markets with the same frequency. It’s their attitudes about particular benefits of local food that differed.”

The data also revealed that signs at grocery stores are a popular way for consumers to get information about food but that many consumers have difficulty identifying local food in stores. Consequently, making sure that local food signage is prominent and highlights a Wisconsin connection is important. “Because consumers here agree that local food means Wisconsin, identifying Wisconsin food as from Wisconsin on signs, rather than simply as local, might be even more appealing to consumers,” adds Laura Witzling, a graduate student in the UW-Madison Department of Life Sciences Communication, who co-authored the report.

Surveys were administered through the UW-River Falls Survey Research Center. The surveys were sent by mail to a random sample of 3,000 Wisconsin households in the summer of 2015, with 691 surveys returned. Analysis focused on surveys from respondents that were their household’s primary food shopper (642 respondents). The research was funded by a grant through the UW-Consortium for Extension and Research in Agriculture and Natural Resources. The full report is available here: Wisconsin Local Food Report.