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UK food study highlights universal concerns
Many people are concerned about food issues and want to see more local food offered at groceries and restaurants, according to a recent food survey conducted by a University of Kentucky rural sociology class.
The study, conducted through interviews with consumers at five Lexington food retail markets - Wal-Mart on Nicholasville Road, Wal-Mart on New Circle Road, Good Foods Co-op and the Lexington Farmers' Saturday Market on Vine Street and their Sunday market on Southland Drive, showed that despite income differences, people were universally aware of food issues and wanted to see more local food offered in area grocery stores and restaurants.
"It doesn't matter. It cuts across income levels and education levels. A lot of people are asking for more local food, and they want to improve our understanding about how food is an important part of our local culture," said Keiko Tanaka, associate professor in the UK College of Agriculture's Department of Community and Leadership Development.
Tanaka's class has been contributing pieces for the past three years to her ongoing study about local food issues, a study which was begun by Sociology Professor Patrick Mooney. Over the course of the research, Mooney discovered that there is a dearth of food stores in the poorest areas of Lexington. This can be especially crippling in areas where many residents don't own cars. Stores in those areas, though classified as groceries by the health department, often are merely corner stores that carry bread, milk and occasionally eggs. Of the 18 stores surveyed by Tanaka's 2006 class, 16 had no apples or other fresh produce.
The next year, her class investigated food prices. They discovered the prices in the neighborhood corner stores are much higher than those at the larger, full-service groceries, adding to the burden on consumers who have no way to get to large food stores.
Noting the growing interest in food, as evidenced by popular books by Barbara Kingsolver and Michael Pollan, Tanaka charged this year's class with finding out whether the ordinary consumer has any concerns about food issues.
"First of all, we wanted to know what concerns people have and who is concerned about those issues," she said. "In other words, does their choice of store have anything to do with the level of their concern?"
She also wanted to find out what the shoppers considered to be a good food system.
The survey results showed that people do have different reasons for choosing their food markets. Shoppers at the farmers' market and Good Foods Co-op shopped at those locations because of quality, variety, selection and locally-produced foods. Of those interviewed at the two farmers' market sites, 48 percent said they wanted to support local farmers. People who were interviewed at the two Wal-Mart locations said they shopped there because of affordability and convenience.
Tanaka said she was interested to find that, no matter where survey participants shopped, they were still concerned with basic food issues.
"Food is an important issue for many residents," she said.
Out of the 332 people interviewed, 316 mentioned that nutrition and health were important to them, while 290 said affordability was important. Participants in the survey could respond with more than one answer.
The other thing she discovered was, though people were satisfied with the U.S. food system on the whole, they did voice some concerns.
"Everybody realizes the U.S. food system is, in many ways, great because of abundance of food, availability, accessibility, affordability and convenience," she said. "But on the other hand, I think one of the things that we heard most was the lack of locally-produced food. That, to me, I think creates a lot of opportunities for farmers here."
It also shows how aware consumers have become.
"It doesn't matter where you talk to them, people are saying we want more locally produced food," Tanaka said. "They want transparency, meaning they want to know where their food is from. Many of them also said we need to improve the food knowledge in schools."
Tanaka said survey participants also conveyed a sense of frustration.
"Some of the people said that the bad thing about the U.S. food system is healthy food is expensive and junk food is cheap. They wish they could buy more fruits and vegetables for their kids, but they can't afford it," she said.
When asked what local actions are needed, participants responded with the need for a permanent, year-round farmers' market in Lexington, an increase in the availability of local food at grocery stores and restaurants, community support for local farming and improved education about food.
Tanaka has plans to build a Lexington Community Food Assessment Web site to make available the results of her students' work. She and her graduate research assistant also are working to create a directory of organizations and groups involved with sustainable agriculture and the food initiative in the Bluegrass region.
"There are a lot of people working in these areas, but they don't necessarily know each other" she said. "I'm hoping that this directory will allow more coordination and networking."
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