Trey Malone & Francisco Flores Moreno: Local food identity – What’s local production have to do with it?

Assistant professor Trey Malone and MS student Francisco Flores Moreno compare what people say represents their state’s food identity to the state’s top agricultural commodities.

Assistant professor Trey Malone and MS student Francisco Flores Moreno compare what people say represents their state’s food identity to the state’s top agricultural commodities.

Is it really a Thanksgiving dinner without a turkey on the table?  What if the stuffing lacks bread? Or if the pumpkin pie and cranberry sauce are absent?  On the fourth Thursday in November, millions of families across the United States will observe these time-honored traditions by gathering at their tables to recreate a mythical feast shared among the Pilgrims and Wampanoag almost 400 years ago.  Despite the historic narrative, we would have to drastically change the composition of traditional dishes of this holiday if our plates were to truly reflect the original meal. Wildfowl, goose or duck, and venison would overshadow turkey.  Since butter and wheat flour weren’t available to the starving Pilgrims, pumpkin would have to be present in other forms than pie.  Moreover, potatoes would have to be discarded: their entrance to the North American food market hadn’t occurred yet in those days!  

Our late November feast is just one example of how our food-borne traditions evolve over time. Contradictions within our food identities are not limited to history, as these disparities are also likely to exist across modern day geography.  The recent explosion of interest in “localness” as an essential food attribute stirs our attention toward the relationship between local food identity and state production.  Locally branded products often take advantage of marketing channels that shorten the geographic distance between consumers and producers.  These channels have thrived in recent decades; between 2007 and 2012, farmers participating in direct-to-consumer marketing outlets increased by 5.5%.  The amount sold by these farmers was $8.7 billion in 2015.

This article uses primary data methods to explore those disparities in the U.S. consumer’s local food identity.  Specifically, we compare what people say represents their state’s food identity to the state’s top agricultural commodities.  In collaboration with Bailey Norwood and the Food Demand Survey at Oklahoma State University, we asked 9,329 U.S. food consumers about foods that they consider a part of their state’s local food identity.  Using an open-ended question format, we stated:

“Many people believe their state is associated with a particular type of food. In the space below, please list one or more foods that you believe is most associated with the state in which you currently reside.”

This interactive map reports our findings, along with the top agricultural commodities produced in each state as measured by cash receipts.  The results display some interesting relationships between local food identity and agricultural production.


Click the enlarge icon on the bottom right to see details of the map

For the most part, the participants listed foods that matched surprisingly well with what was actually produced in their home state.  In almost 50 percent of the 49 considered states, people’s answers had a good degree (2 or 3 matches) of relationship with their state’s main agricultural products. For example, Wisconsinites listed dairy, beef, and corn as representative of their local food identity.  Those also happen to be the commodities they produce the most.  In fact, Wisconsinites say they love cheese more than they love Aaron Rodgers or (more importantly) beer!  Some states, however, did not match at all.  Californians listed avocados, citrus, and beef as representative of their local food identity.  The cash receipts, however, tell a different story as dairy, grapes, and almonds top their list for highest valued crops.

The states that had a large gap between their agricultural production and their local food identity were the same states that produce a large number of commercially grown agricultural products.  In Michigan, for example, cherries and apples reigned supreme even though neither made the top three in terms of actual sales. 

Dairy is perhaps the most interesting commodity story uncovered by this map.  Even though dairy products make the top-three in cash receipts for 21 different states, it made the list of local food identity in only Wisconsin, Rhode Island, and Vermont.  This mismatch suggests that some interesting behavioral experiments could be conducted to test why dairy producers have not been able to establish a stronger relationship with their nearby consumers.

It is also worth noting that foreign food was a part of the food identities for nine states, with a particular emphasis on Mexican and Italian food.  As long as certain foods retain their bonds with the cultural elements of its origins, they are likely to withstand the drastic changes in food systems and still be perceived as a part of the local food culture.  Consider the responses from New Mexicans in our survey.  Even though dairy, beef cattle, and pecans comprise the top three cash receipts, New Mexicans considered chilies, beef, and Mexican food to be the most important to their state’s local food identity.  This is not terribly surprising to anyone who has ever spent time in New Mexico – you can order green chilies as a topping on just about any food you eat there.  Similarly, consider the case of pepperoni rolls in West Virginia. Although pepperoni is derived from Italian sausages, it turns out that this food is deeply rooted in the identity of this state. Actually, at the beginning of the 19th century, the flourishing coal mining industry recruited a large workforce, mainly comprised of Italian immigrants.  Pepperoni rolls were cheap and convenient food for these workers that also respected their cultural heritage.

Ultimately, these results suggest that the dramatic changes in the American food system over the past century have not entirely eliminated the history of local food identity, but that perhaps consumers do in fact have a communal appreciation of local foods.  This is especially evident in craft beer, where breweries oftentimes locate themselves in places that reflect the community’s traditional identities.  Understanding these relationships requires us to learn how local food identity is formed. As such, this map represents a simple exploratory step toward more deeply understanding how consumers develop an attachment value for the food products they purchase.

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