Featured Post-doc Profile

The Environmental and Social Impacts of Buying Locally Grown Food

The environmental movement’s support for local food systems has grown exponentially in recent years, spawning a national wave of interest and investments in food hubs, farmers markets, farm-to-table restaurants and locally based food processing. Communities, such as Grand Rapids, Mich., have spent millions of dollars to build year-round downtown public markets that bring farm-fresh produce to city dwellers’ doorsteps and revitalize languishing low-income neighborhoods.

Ethan Schoolman, Ph.D., ’13, sees this phenomenon as a positive outgrowth of concerns for the environment, equal food access, population health and economic development. Yet, he notes, relatively little research has been done to quantify the anticipated environmental, social and economic benefits of these investments. Questions remain about whether local food systems do in fact contribute to environmental and social sustainability.

Over the next few years, Schoolman will try to unearth answers to those questions through his independent and collaborative research at the University of Michigan, where he holds a dual appointment as an Erb Institute Postdoctoral Research Fellow and a Dow Sustainability Fellow at the School of Natural Resources and Environment.

“Locally grown food is often fresher and better tasting than food that travels a long way, and there is widespread agreement on the regional economic benefits of local food production, as well,” Schoolman says. “The environmental impacts are not as clear. Local food is transported a shorter distance, so fewer carbon emissions are produced. However, less is known about whether farmers who participate in local food systems are more likely to use environmentally beneficial production methods, or about what inequalities exist in access to local food. As a postdoctoral fellow, I will be investigating the environmental and social consequences of efforts to strengthen local food systems.”

Schoolman already has begun working with the Washtenaw Food Hub and sustainable-food groups in Washtenaw County to obtain grant funding for a project that would assist local farmers in scaling up their production to meet the needs of food entrepreneurs and the restaurant community. The food hub serves as a center for connecting commercial and institutional organizations and food processors with growers of raw produce and farm products. Schoolman is helping the hub conduct surveys of area food producers to gain insights into their current farming production, and to determine what kinds of methods they will use as they ramp up their operations.

A second thread of Schoolman’s food-related research centers on a collaborative project with SNRE Professor Dorceta E. Taylor to explore the potential of local food networks to reduce food insecurity among low-income populations. The Food Access in Michigan project, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, engages six Midwest universities, including the U-M and the U-M-Flint, in research, education and extension activities aimed at understanding disparities in food access in 18 Michigan cities and developing programs to increase participation in local food initiatives. Schoolman is helping to coordinate interviews with nonprofit leaders, city officials and entrepreneurs to identify obstacles that can thwart investments in local food systems. Later this year, he will assist in convening focus groups of farmers to probe key issues related to farm-to-market food production.

While the study of local food systems seems a bit far afield for a former beat reporter who left the hubbub of a Chicago newsroom to pursue a doctoral degree in sociology at the U-M, Schoolman contends he has found the perfect milieu to nurture his talents and explore his research interests. “I wanted to go into a field that would give me more time and resources to ask questions about why things happen the way they do and how people think about the world, and then to tell their stories,” he says. As part of his doctoral work, Schoolman developed a new theory of “socially responsible purchasing” that revealed consumers are more likely to “buy local” than to “buy green,” regardless of their political, ideological and economic backgrounds. On the other hand, only a relatively small segment of upper-income, politically liberal buyers appear willing to pay extra on a regular basis to purchase Fair Trade and environmentally friendly goods. That revelation provided a springboard to his postdoctoral research into whether buying local is indeed better for the environment and society, or “just another good.”

Over his seven years at Michigan, Schoolman has pushed the envelope of environmentalism and inched the University toward greater sustainability. During his two years as a graduate fellow of the Graham Environmental Sustainability Institute, Schoolman helped train the first generation of Planet Blue Ecological Ambassadors and spearheaded the design of the Sustainability Cultural Indicators survey. The U-M Institute for Social Research administers the survey periodically to a large sampling of Michigan students, faculty and staff to gauge their attitudes and behaviors around sustainability issues. As an Erb Doctoral Research Scholar, Schoolman contributed to a joint report with the Union of Concerned Scientists and represented the Institute at the Network for Business Sustainability Conference at the Ivey School of Business.

Erb’s pioneering work to bridge the world of the private sector and business with the world of environmentalism and sustainability has produced fertile ground for Schoolman’s research endeavors. “I see a close fit between my interest in local food systems, restaurants, food producers and farmers and the contributions these business people can make to improve the environment and create a more socially just world where everybody has access to fresh, healthy, local food,” he explains. “That connectivity is right at the heart of the Erb Institute’s mission.”


Watch this (2:40) video on Local Food, Ann Arbor, and the Washtenaw Food Hub featuring Ethan and his work:


Watch this (1:54) video on Food Access in Michigan featuring Ethan and his work: