The Business of Eating Healthy

Of all of my vices, drinking soda has been the hardest habit to break. Maybe I need to get out more, but there really isn’t much better than a Coca-Cola on a summer day. I have somewhat recently given up my favorite sugary drinks and have been noticing how few people still regularly drink soda. Some quick research backs up this claim, with IBISWorld reporting that soda revenues have been in freefall for the past decade or so.[1]

The decline in demand for soda is only a small part of what some would call a national “health craze.” Essentially, consumers are becoming increasingly more conscious of not only the nutritional aspects of the food they buy, but also the source and quality of these foods- especially produce and meats. While this is unfortunate for the big businesses that have profited from unhealthy, processed, and overly-refined foods, it is an exciting opportunity for smaller firms to bring healthier alternatives to market.

Kale is a perfect example of this. Once relegated to garnishing buffet tables, kale has skyrocketed in popularity alongside a number of so-called “superfoods.” Some reports claim kale demand increased by 30% annually in the years leading to 2016, where demand began to level off.[2] The same is true for quinoa, which saw a 600% increase in demand and price from 2005 to 2013.[3]

When I think about the opportunities associated with the national health-craze, I first think of Southwest Virginia. Animal and crop production is somewhat small within the region in terms of employment, however business establishment data suggests that the number of farms in the region is growing. Additionally, the growth of the Virginia Produce Company (located in Hillsville) and regional farmers markets have provided small farmers with concrete ways to market and distribute their products.

Outside of trendy and often imported “superfoods,” overall demand for organic or locally grown products (or both) has seen a steady uptick. For instance, organic food sales increased by $31 billion from 1997 to 2014.[4] More recent reports indicate that demand for organic products is still increasing, potentially outpacing the rate of domestic production.[5] There has also been a considerable increase in demand for local produce. A 2014 USDA study reported a 76% increase in farmers markets since 2008, bringing the total number of domestic farmers markets to 8,268 (or 2.6 markets per US county or county-equivalent).[6]

There is clear momentum in the region’s agriculture sector, and it is my hope that this momentum only increases. Starting a farm can be an uphill battle due to the ever-increasing price of land, equipment, and inputs and the unavailability of credit. An increase in small scale agriculture, however, could be an effective vehicle for increasing regional productivity and diversifying local economies. Additionally, increasing regional agricultural outputs could be an effective tool for lowering the region’s higher-than-average obesity rate and increasing accessibility to healthy dietary options- especially in the more remote towns and counties within the region. While there is no way to predict what foods will qualify as the next “superfoods” it is clear that the domestic health-craze is here to stay.

[1] Amir, Anna. “Soda Production in the US.” IBISWorld, (February 2019). Accessed February 28, 2019.

[2] Berr, Jonathon. “Kale’s popularity may be outstripping the seed supply.” CBS News, (January 2019). Accessed February 28, 2019.

[3] McDonell, Emma. “The Quinoa Boom Goes Bust in the Andes.” NACLA, (March 2018). Accessed February 28, 2019.

[4] Moore, Charles. “Demand is High: How will the US Handle Organic Food Shortages.” Guidepoint. Accessed February 28, 2019.

[5] ibid.

[6] “New Data Reflects the Continued Demand for Farmers Markets.” USDA, (August 2014). Accessed February 28, 2019.

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