An Indiana University study that looked at consumers who buy locally grown and produced foods through farmer's markets and community-supported agriculture programs found the venues largely attract a "privileged" class of shoppers.
"Our findings present a need for broadening local food opportunities beyond the privileged, higher-income consumer, through alternative payment plans and strategic efforts that make fresh foods accessible to a diversity of people," said James Farmer, assistant professor in the Department of Recreation, Park and Tourism Studies in the IU School of Public Health-Bloomington.
The study focused on farmer's markets and CSAs in Indiana, which has more than 130 farmer's markets and more than 50 CSAs. In a CSA, individuals pay an upfront fee, usually $250 to $700, in exchange for a routine allotment of a farm's bounty. This can include fruits and vegetables, along with eggs, meat, dairy products and other goods.
Nationally, the popularity of both has grown exponentially, Farmer said, with farmer's markets seeing a 450% increase since 1994. More than 12,500 CSAs operate across the U.S.
Often, local foods are produced using farming practices that eliminate or decrease the use of chemical applications that can be found in conventionally produced farm products.
Farmer said if considering freshness as an important factor when choosing food, local may be a good way to go.
"Hands down local foods that are distributed directly from the farmer to the consumer get from the field to the table in a much shorter period of time," he said. "Also, when you shop at a chain grocery store, the money you spend quickly leaves the local economy, as opposed to being spent several times over within one's own town or city."
Farmer said that alternative payment models do exist for CSAs and farmer's markets, but they need to become more widespread. Many farmer's markets accept WIC Program vouchers and other government assistance for food. Many CSAs have incorporated payment installment plans and work-exchange programs, with a smaller number offering a sliding payment scale.
"Additionally, the need for farmer's markets and CSAs to be positioned in locations proximate to people who are food insecure would also increase access," he said.
The USDA has implemented regulations that allow CSA operators to accept SNAP benefits as a form of payment, provided specific requirements are met and the proper paperwork is completed through the USDA Food and Nutrition Service. More information is available here.