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Transforming Health: PA Preferred

Written by Megan Lello, witf Reporter and Producer | Mar 14, 2013 4:29 AM

(Undated) -- The idea of buying and eating locally-produced foods has exploded in recent years. It's especially gained traction in the commonwealth, where agriculture is one of the top two industries.

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Mangia Qui Executive Chef Qui Qui Musarra

Some central Pennsylvania restaurants are catering to patrons' desire for local food, including Mangia Qui on North Street in Harrisburg.

No matter what dish you order there, chances are at least part of it came from somewhere in the region, such as "Lancaster, Dilsburg, Perry County, [and] the Pennsylvania-Maryland border," as described by Executive Chef Qui Qui Musarra.

She says she's been using locally-sourced ingredients at her restaurant specializing in Italian and Mediterranean cuisine ever since it opened 11 years ago. "I just think it's part of life. It has been since the beginning of time. It's just gotten a lot more press lately. People like to latch onto an idea and a concept, especially when it seems new. But, really, it's as old as time."

Musarra says some patrons are more interested in where their food comes from than others. But in this "Information Age," she says, it's key for servers to know as much as they can about the food they're presenting in case customers have a question.

Many states now have their own branding initiatives to help market local foods and other types of products to consumers. Pennsylvania is no exception.  It has PA Preferred.

As Program Coordinator Bryan Keister explans, "[It's] the official branding program for Pennsylvania agricultural products. What we offer to our members is rights to use the PA Preferred logo on their marketing efforts, so whether that's labels, on their website, commercials, or whatever."

He says the program has about 2,000 members so far, including farms, supermarkets, and Qui Qui Musarra's Mangia Qui restaurant.

It's gained traction since becoming official in 2011, and was heavily featured at this year's Farm Show in Harrisburg, where the theme was: "Made in PA. It makes a difference." Stickers of the PA Preferred logo, a yellow check mark, were everywhere, and it was even etched into the highly-anticipated butter sculpture.

Keister says he thinks part of the growing interest in the program is due to its "neighbors-helping-neighbors" sense of idealism. "Members have said that, you know, consumers see their product, and they see, 'Oh, I love this jam.' Or 'Oh, I love this pasta sauce.' But they don't know where that product's coming from. And then when consumers see the PA Preferred logo, they know that that product is made in Pennsylvania. It's coming from a Pennsylvania company that employs Pennsylvanians to work at its facility, and that money is being put back into the local economy."

But Keister says no real statistics exist to show how well these products sell because of PA Preferred.

Such research is slow in coming together on a national level as well. A U.S.Department of Agriculture study released in 2010 does reveal direct-to-consumer sales from food markets accounted for 0.4 percent of total agricultural sales in 2007. That's up from 0.3 percent a decade before.

A 2012 USDA report shows about 250 regulated farmers markets were open for business in the state last year.

The figure may not sound impressive, but James Dunn, a professor of agricultural economics at Penn State, says programs like PA Preferred are at least making local products more accessible. "I don't know if it's because of PA Preferred, or whether PA Preferred is kind of riding the trend itself, but one way or the other, we see more local sources, more people trying to expand production."

Dunn does warn that sometimes, buying local can be more costly. "If you value your own time and with expensive gasoline, the cost of making a trip to a farmers' market or something like that may make the product more expensive, even if it's got the same price as in the story you were going to anyway."

He says he's not sure whether interest in local food is linked to the increasing number of farmers' markets, or an increasing awareness of food safety.

Many consumers say local food just tastes better.

But whatever the reason, the movement is here to stay.

Qui Qui Musarra of Mangia Qui says she'll always be a supporter. "There are excellent products here in Pennsylvania. And they should be showcased."

And, with the growing interest in buying local foods and products, many will be.

For more about food marketing and safety, check out witf's multimedia initiative, Transforming Health.

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