Today, the United States’ food system is primarily a large industrial operation with smaller-scale community-based food systems. Although the industrial food system has benefitted society by increasing the amount of food available for every person, some of these products are “cheap” food products that generate external costs, such as poor health, potential wealth loss to farmers and environmental degradation. With over 1 billion individuals on earth undernourished and 15.8% of all U.S. households as of 2010 food insecure [Patel, 2012], this system has not completely solved food issues. Community-based food systems, on the other hand, minimize external costs by aiming to benefit the economic, environmental, and social health of communities. Quality food markets are defined in this study as locations within these smaller systems where local and quality food is sold and where consumer demand can affect supply and strengthen the smaller system. The primary purpose of this research was to learn what consumers understand about the external costs to “cheap” food and assesses quality food markets that minimize these external costs in the Bloomington-Normal, Illinois community. An in-depth literature review was conducted to understand what is known about this topic. Personal observation was conducted at quality food markets in Bloomington-Normal, IL to assess what experiences consumers were having at these locations. Fifteen key informant interviews were conducted, twenty-seven consumer interviews, and a consumer survey was circulated to the Green Top Grocery mailing list (those interested in food cooperative efforts in Bloomington-Normal, IL) and was completed by 248 consumers at an 18% response rate. The results helped identify the ability of the community-based food system to minimize the external costs of the industrial food system. Consumer interviews and the survey revealed information on how the consumer sample makes food-purchasing decisions based on criteria such as quality and price and that there is a range of understanding for the external costs of “cheap” food. This methodology also helped reveal strategies to continue moving similar community systems forward by adding or supporting quality food markets, and through understanding consumers and their food purchasing decisions. Such strategies may help minimize the external costs of the U.S. industrial food system.


Civic and Community Engagement | Environmental Sciences