An apple a day

How health influences fresh produce purchases

By: Sarah Buckleitner

An <span>apple</span> a day

A local producer from Morgan Farms sells greens from his pickup at the Farmers Market in Columbus, MS. (Photo by Dominique Belcher)

Diet is a huge component of staying healthy, and when illness strikes, it can change our relationship with food. Local food outlets, like farmers markets and farm stands, give consumers more control over exactly what they eat-in terms of knowing how and where their produce is grown, and how fresh it is-and put producers in the role of educator as well as grower.

Drs. Matthew Interis, Lurleen Walters, and Alba J. Collart, researchers in the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station's Department of Agricultural Economics, partnered with former MSU colleague, Dr. Kimberly Morgan to explore the connection between health and local produce. The team surveyed consumers throughout the Southeast to discover whether familial health issues influenced their purchasing decisions.

Morgan, now an assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics at Virginia Tech, explained that the research topic came from a mixture of personal experience and requests from producers for better marketing methods.

"I work closely with Southeastern farmers who want to sell their food directly to consumers. However, they're struggling with how to market their products, and differentiate the food in their stands from the food you'd buy in the grocery store," Morgan explained.

According to Morgan, culture can play a factor when it comes to eating fresh, local foods. For instance, Morgan points out that a salad in the Southeast might look a little different than in a place like New York City or Los Angeles.

"Culturally speaking, we generally see a different approach to eating fruits and vegetables across the U.S., which can make marketing those products a challenge across the Southeastern region," Morgan said.

There is also a difference in the type of outlet that offers local food.

"Our consumers in the South source and purchase fresh food items differently than those in the Northeast and Pacific Northwest. We have grandmas who grow tomatoes and provide them to their families; we have church members who give homegrown food away within their communities. So it's a unique culture, and will require a different marketing message to be successful," Morgan said.

Even before producers started asking for suggestions, however, Morgan had personal reasons for considering the link between health and food.

"My dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer when I was twelve. Traditional medical treatment options were limited so we tried to help him heal holistically, buying all sorts of fresh and organic fruits and vegetables. That experience made a huge impact on me, and I wanted to see whether there was a larger trend present," Morgan said.

To answer this question, the researchers distributed a survey throughout Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Texas, Georgia, and Florida asking people about their familial health histories, as well as whether they attended farmers markets and farm stands and whether they purchased products at these places. Survey participation was great, with more than 4,700 people responding.

The illnesses they examined included heart disease, diabetes, obesity, back/joint pain, Alzheimer's/dementia, and cancer-the broadest range of issues that has yet to be covered in a study like this.

Dr. Matthew Interis explained the survey design. "We added a lot of detail about health issues that could impact food decisions. It's more complete than past studies, but it's a lot broader, which makes finding a cohesive narrative in the results more difficult," Interis said.

They also broke up the analysis by defining two different types of family: procreational family, or the immediate family living in your home with you, and orientational family, as in your grandparents and parents who may live outside of the home.

"We had the idea that food choices could be proactive-if your parents struggle with a health issue that could be addressed by food, you purchase accordingly. Or it could be reactive-someone in your immediate family has health issues, and so you change your purchasing," Interis elaborated.

The researchers found that results varied by family type, market type, and disease. The results suggested that for immediate families, diseases such as obesity made individuals purchase produce more frequently at a farmers market. However, joint pain decreased their frequency of purchasing at a farmers market. On the other hand, illness in the family generally increased the likelihood of a respondent purchasing at a farm stand.

Meanwhile, when disease occurrence happened among family members who may live outside of the home, health history mostly didn't impact the likelihood of purchase for either farm stands or farmers markets, which suggests that people tend to be more reactive to familial health issues than proactive.

Dr. Lurleen Walters explained how Mississippi and its surrounding states represented a unique setting to study health issues and food purchasing decisions.

"In the case of Mississippi and the southeastern US, there are fewer outlets for producers to sell their produce locally, and sometimes just finding a public space for a market can be a constraint. Even when consumers may be interested in addressing health conditions through specific food sources, producers may not be able to respond," Walters said.

The researchers also noted that producers in the Southeast tend to be small and have very diversified crops-which their local customers may not be used to cooking. This places them into the position of educator as well as farmer. Further, low income families with restricted transportation, may have difficulty accessing outlets off the beaten path.

So how can a producer more effectively market their produce to local consumers?

Dr. Alba J. Collart suggests, "Include key health benefits of eating fresh produce, and educate people about food miles-knowledge about how far produce travels to our plates was a significant factor in purchasing, and it's easy to market. We also found that price-sensitive consumers believe farmers markets and farm stands are more expensive than traditional outlets. But if they're actually cheaper, try advertising that."

Researchers found that for many consumers with a history of disease prevention and treatment, the purchase and consumption of fresh, local fruits and vegetables plays an important role. Former graduate student Sudha Thapaliya worked on this project for her master's thesis and the research has been published in the Journal of Agricultural and Applied Economics.