Because Americans are using farmers' markets and food coops at levels that stand out in our recent history, University of Iowa researchers recently looked at the phenomenon. They found that local users, often called locavores, are shopping at markets in order to buy in to their local community, not just in order to obtain fresh food. Ion Vasi, an associate professor at UI, shared results of the study recently at the American Sociology Association Annual meeting in Chicago.

"It's not just about the economical exchange; it's a relational and ideological exchange as well," said Vasi in a statement.

Here's a bit more about that use: Farmers markets increased from 3,706 in 2004 to 8,268 in 2014, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Also, between 1992 and 2007, national direct-to-consumer food sales increased three-fold, growing twice as fast as total agricultural sales, the USDA says.The researchers discovered that the number of Internet searches for farmers markets almost tripled during that same ten-year period, while the number of newspaper articles that mention farmers markets has almost quadrupled, the release said.

According to the study, market users are driven to eat locally grown produce and meat, which makes them feel a part of something greater than themselves. By committing to support this local food movement, people are sharing a common passion for a healthy lifestyle and for building a sustainable environment. This civic duty is a way for them to preserve their local economy against the threats of globalization and big-box stores, the release noted.

Vasi further explained that sociologists identify local food markets as a "moralized market," meaning that people combine their economic activities with their social values. According to their study, areas where residents have a strong commitment to such civic participation, health and the environment are more likely to have local food markets. 

"It's about valuing the relationship with the farmers and people who produce the food and believing that how they produce the food aligns with your personal values," explained Vasi, in the release.

To determine the development of local food markets, Vasi looked at the number of farmers markets, food coops, community-supported agriculture providers and local food restaurants in cities throughout the U.S. Researchers then conducted 40 interviews with consumers and producers in different local food markets in Iowa and New York. They found the root of their devotion was really about cultivating relationships with those nearest and dearest: their neighbors, the release said. 

"A growing number of communities have attempted to gain control of their own economies by encouraging civic engagement that supports investing in locally owned businesses instead of outside companies," as the researchers stated in their study, according to the release. They also noted that it was the large superstores and globalization forces that encouraged the "buy local" campaigns across the country in the 1990s.