The Journal of Extension -

April 2013 // Volume 51 // Number 2 // Research In Brief // v51-2rb4

Mid-Atlantic Consumer Purchasing Behavior and Knowledge of Locally Grown and Seasonal Produce

Mid-Atlantic urban consumers were surveyed on their fruit and vegetable purchasing behaviors and their knowledge of produce grown in the region. Consumers were generally unaware of what produce is grown in the mid-Atlantic and during what months they are harvested. Additionally, differences pertaining to number of produce items purchased were exhibited based on demographic characteristics. Extension educators are advised of these trends as a basis to develop marketing and consumer educational efforts.

Amy J. Chamberlain
Formerly, Agriculture Resource Educator
Farm Business and Market Development
Cornell Cooperative Extension Schoharie and Otsego Counties
Cooperstown, New York

Kathleen M. Kelley
Associate Professor
Departments of Horticulture and Agricultural Economics & Rural Sociology
Pennsylvania State University
University Park, Pennsylvania

Jeffrey Hyde
Associate Professor
Departments of Horticulture and Agricultural Economics & Rural Sociology
Pennsylvania State University
University Park, Pennsylvania


Consumer interest in locally grown produce has increased in recent decades, resulting in a 200% growth in the number of farmers' markets between 1994 and 2009 (USDA, 2009) and the number of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs increasing to over 12,500 farms offering a program in 2007 (USDA, 2007). Though demand exists, many consumers are still unaware of where their produce originates (Ikerd, 2001), what types they can purchase from local/regional sources, and when these items are available. A study involving Pennsylvania high school students revealed that students were only able to correctly answer 58% of questions pertaining to food origin. Furthermore, only 40% could identify spring available produce, while 20% could identify fall available produce (Harmon, 1999). A similar survey conducted with New York University students indicated that the students were generally able to identify three local foods; however, potatoes, apples, and lettuce were among the foods that students listed as "not seasonal" to the local region (Wilkins, Bowdish, & Sobal 2000).

Although knowledge of locally grown produce may be lacking overall, certain consumer groups may have more knowledge than others if they purchase these items frequently. For example, a survey of New Jersey consumers showed that the majority of those who were aware of a regional branding program for local produce also purchased products branded by this program (Govindasamy, Italia, & Thatch, 1999). Several other studies have also found that those who typically frequent farmers markets and other locally grown produce venues are usually highly educated, professional, medium-old aged, white, and female, and belong to households of two members and have higher levels of income or socioeconomic status (Govindasamy, Italia, & Adelaja, 2002; Wardle et al., 2004; Elepu, 2005, Kiefer, Rathmanner, & Kunze, 2005; Zenk et al., 2005; Dubowitz et al., 2008; Stewart & Lucier, 2009; Severson, 2010). Additionally, those who frequented these markets were very similar to those who purchased more produce items in general (Elepu, 2005).

Research is needed to understand primary food shopper knowledge of locally grown produce and seasonal availability. Once this is understood, Extension personnel can help develop and provide appropriate educational initiatives to consumers so as to better connect them to farms and markets selling locally grown produce. Specifically, examining primary food shoppers residing in the mid-Atlantic region is vital as it accounts for nearly 20% of the nation's population (U.S. Census Bureau, n.d.). The trend for purchasing locally grown produce also particularly affects this region due to the large number of small and part-time growers, as many of these farms may serve markets and consumers in their local areas. Past research has focused on subjects from this region only, yet thus far, studies conducted to examine consumer knowledge of locally grown produce have primarily included students. Further information is needed about the types of fruits and vegetables purchased, knowledge of produce origins, and how these relate to consumer demographics. Educational materials can then be better tailored to groups who actually seek and purchase these items.

Research Objectives

  • Determine what fruits and vegetables consumers purchase that can be grown in the mid-Atlantic region.
  • Determine what fruits and vegetables consumers believe are grown in the mid-Atlantic.
  • Determine what months consumers believe that a selection of fruits and vegetables grown in the mid-Atlantic are harvested.
  • Compare responses between demographic groups.


Data were collected through two separate 15-minute Internet surveys (Survey 1, 7-10 Apr. 2009, and Survey 2, 23-25 Mar. 2010) developed using SurveyMonkey (Palo Alto, CA). An average of 1,638 Survey Sampling International, LLC (Shelton, CT) panelists between the two surveys residing in five metropolitan areas in the mid-Atlantic U.S. region (Richmond, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New York City) responded to the surveys. Surveys were pre-tested on a subset (N=100) of the target consumer population. Participants were randomly selected from a panel of participants residing in targeted metropolitan areas managed by Survey Sampling International, LLC. Panelists received an electronic consent statement along with a link to the survey developed by researchers and approved by the Office of Research Protections at The Pennsylvania State University (University Park, PA). Panelists were screened for being at least 21 years old and also if they were the primary shopper for their household (as questions about alcohol were asked).

Survey data was analyzed with SPSS (versions 17, 18 and 19; SPSS, Chicago, IL). To assess differences between responses across demographic groups (Table 1), Pearson's Chi Square (X2) and Phi and Cramer's V tests were used to analyze responses for categorical and/or multiple-choice questions, Kruskal-Wallis and Mann-Whitney U tests for Likert-Scale questions, and the independent T-test and ANOVA tests for interval/ratio questions.


Summary of Participant Demographics

As tests of significance between participant groups were only able to be conducted for Survey 1 participants, a summary of demographics for only this survey's participants are shown (Table 1).

Table 1.
Summary of Demographics for Survey 1 Participants

  No. (%)
Age Group
21-24 95 (6)
25-36 237 (14)
37-48 404 (24)
49-64 800 (47)
>65 169 (10)
Household Income Level
<$25,000 246 (15)
$25,000-$49,999 490 (29)
$50,000-$74,999 411 (25)
$75,000-$99,999 226 (14)
>$100,000 298 (18)
Ethnic Groupz
White 1349 (82)
Black 210 (13)
Asian 40 (2)
Hispanic 42 (3)
Number of Adults In the Household
1 410 (24)
2 819 (48)
3 287 (17)
4 or more 183 (11)
Male 326 (19)
Female 1370 (81)

zWhite = White/Anglo, Black = Black/African American, Asian = Asian American, Hispanic = Hispanic American

Purchasing Behavior and Knowledge of mid-Atlantic Fruits and Vegetables

To assess consumer knowledge and purchases of produce grown in the mid-Atlantic region, Survey 1 participants were first asked to indicate produce items they had purchased from a list of 32 fruits and vegetables commonly sold year-round at supermarkets (Table 2). Participants selected 22 types of produce on average, with apples purchased by most, followed by corn and tomatoes. The least popular items included eggplant and squash.

Table 2.
Survey 1 Consumer Perceptions Regarding Whether Certain Produce Items Are Grown in the Mid-Atlantic and Proportion Purchasing Each Item

Produce Item Purchase Produce Item (%) Belief That Produce Item is Grown In the Mid-Atlantic (%) Produce Item Purchase Produce Item (%) Belief That Produce Item is Grown In the Mid-Atlantic (%)
Apples 91 73 Herbs 49 42
Asparagus 55 40 Leafy Greens 69 51
Beans 63 47 Melons 68 41
Berries 76 56 Mushrooms 62 45
Broccoli 78 52 Onions 79 51
Cabbage 60 49 Peaches 71 47
Carrots 81 57 Pears 64 37
Cauliflower 55 43 Peas 54 41
Celery 73 40 Peppers 72 52
Cherries 64 39 Plums 55 28
Corn 85 71 Potatoes 84 52
Cucumbers 78 62 Spinach 60 41
Eggplants 42 38 Squash 48 42
Garlic 61 28 Sweet Potatoes 60 37
Grapes 81 33 Tomatoes 84 69
Green Onions 55 43 Watermelons 74 49

To assess potential differences in purchasing behavior based on variety of items purchased, participants were segmented into two groups: those who purchased none to half of the produce items listed and those who purchased more than half or all 32 items. Responses were compared across a number of demographics. Statistically significant differences were found between age groups, ethnic groups, gender, number of adults in the household, and household income levels (Table 3).

Table 3.
Percentage of Survey 1 Consumers Purchasing Over Half (17 or More) of the 32 Produce Items Analyzed in the Study

Variable Purchased 17-32 Items (%)zy
Age Group 21-24 25-36 37-48 49-64 >65
  55c 67b 73ab 77a 76a
Income Level <$25,000 $25,000-$49,999 $50,000-$74,999 $75,000-$99,999 >$100,000
  65b 70ab 75ab 81a 78a
Number of Adults In the Household 1 2 3 4 or More  
  65b 74a 79a 83a  
Ethnic Groupx White Black Asian Hispanic  
  75a 66b 73ab 62ab  
Gender Male Female      
  66b 75a      

zPearson's Chi-Square test was used to determine significant differences between values at the level of p ≤ 0.05.

yPercentages followed by common letters within rows and demographic categories are not significantly different

xWhite = White/Anglo, Black = Black/African American, Asian = Asian American, Hispanic = Hispanic American

Variety of fruits and vegetables purchased increased with age. A statistically greater percentage of participants ages 49 and older purchased more than 75% of the produce items listed, compared to those between ages 21 and 36. A statistically greater percentage of participants with two or more adults in the household (across sub-categories) also purchased more than half of the produce items listed, compared to those with only one adult in the household. Those having household income levels $75,000 and above (across sub-categories) were also statistically more likely to purchase than their counterparts with household income levels below $25,000. Females also purchased a statistically greater variety of produce items than did males. Last, those describing themselves as White/Anglo as compared to Black/African American participants reported purchasing a greater variety of produce. (Table 3.)

Using the same list of 32 fruits and vegetables, participants were then asked to indicate which they believed were grown in the mid-Atlantic region (Table 2). The majority was able to correctly identify 11 of the 32 items as being grown in the region. Over 70% selected apples, corn, and tomatoes, while over half selected items such as berries and cucumbers. Items selected by less than half included garlic and cabbage. Unlike earlier comparisons made based on variety of mid-Atlantic grown produce purchased, no differences were detected between demographic groups pertaining to knowledge of which items were grown in the mid-Atlantic region.

Knowledge of When Fruits and Vegetables are Harvested in the Mid-Atlantic U.S. Region

Five produce items (tomatoes, lettuce, potatoes, apples, and grapes) were selected to assess consumer awareness of harvest and availability periods for these fruits and vegetables in Survey 2. Participants were asked to indicate the calendar months they believed the five items were harvested from regional farms or whether they believed the item was not grown in the mid-Atlantic. With nine horticultural growing zones in this region (3b through 7b; USDA, 2003), the chosen fruits and vegetables have specific harvesting periods. Responses were deemed correct if participants selected month(s) when the item could be harvested from within in the mid-Atlantic, regardless of growing zone.

Only a slight majority of participants were able to correctly identify that apples can be harvested in Sept. and Oct. and that tomatoes are harvested in July and Aug. (Table 4). Less than half correctly identified the months during which lettuce, grapes, or potatoes are harvested in the region. Additionally, up to one-third of participants incorrectly selected that these five items were not grown in the mid-Atlantic.

Table 4.
Survey 2 Consumers' Perceptions of When Specific Various Fruits and Vegetables Are Harvested in the Mid-Atlantic Region

Month that Participants Indicated Each Fruit and Vegetable Was Harvested Fruit/Vegetable (%)z
Apples Grapes Lettuce Potatoes Tomatoes
January 3 2 5* 3 2
February 5 2 5* 5 3
March 6 4 10* 8* 7
April 9 8 19* 11* 13
May 12 13 33* 16 25
June 15 21* 46* 23 45
July 17* 28* 42* 26* 62*
August 29* 32* 38* 34* 59*
September 59* 30* 28* 40* 41*
October 52* 14* 12* 29* 13*
November 22 3 4* 15* 3
December 5 1 2* 6* 2
zPercentages with asterisks indicate a correct harvest month for that fruit/vegetable within the mid-Atlantic region.


Data for the mid-Atlantic region suggest that while the majority of urban consumers purchase a variety of produce that can be grown in the mid-Atlantic, they are generally unaware that these items are actually grown in the region. They are even less informed about harvest times, which can be an indication of when fresh produce is available for purchase locally. The majority of survey participants could only identify 11 out of the 32 types of produce on the provided list that are grown in the region. Results are representative of Harmon's 1999 study that found that Pennsylvania high school students scored an average 58% for correct responses to food origin questions. Our results suggest that most consumers are unaware as to when certain fruits and vegetables are harvested, with just over half able to identify two of the four months that tomatoes are harvested, and only two of the eight months that apples are harvested. Our results support those of a 2000 study (Wilkins, Bowdish, & Sobal), which found that New York University students identified produce, such as apples and potatoes, as non-seasonal goods, which may indicate a lack of knowledge of harvest times.

The fact that the majority of participants purchased most of the produce items presented that can be grown in the mid-Atlantic is encouraging for industry members who grow and/or sell these items locally. Consumers may be driven to purchase these items if they are informed of what can be grown and available for purchase in the mid-Atlantic and when these items are available. Past studies have shown that often the same consumers who purchase and eat more fruits and vegetables are similar to those who purchase locally grown produce. Individuals who reported purchasing a greater variety of produce in our study were also more likely to be older than 24 years, have a household income level $50,000 to $99,999, belong to a household of two or more adults, female, or describe themselves as White/Anglo.

These findings are supported by research showing that consumers who purchase more fruits and vegetables belong to older age groups, are female, have households of two members, and have a higher income level and/or socioeconomic status. (Govindasamy, Italia, & Adelaja, 2002; Wardle et al., 2004; Elepu, 2005, Kiefer, Rathmanner, & Kunze, 2005; Zenk et al., 2005; Dubowitz et al., 2008; Stewart & Lucier, 2009; and Severson, 2010.)

Extension personnel can use these data as a guide for developing educational materials to inform mid-Atlantic consumers about what produce can be grown locally and during what months of the year they are available fresh for purchase. A lack of knowledge may be preventing interested consumers from purchasing. Results of the study may also be shared with local producers in helping them develop promotional materials as a way of informing new and current consumers.

Future research should focus on examining consumer knowledge of local and seasonal produce within more rural areas of the mid-Atlantic region. These consumers may have more exposure to these items due to proximity to farms and/or have farming backgrounds. If rural consumers are indeed more knowledgeable of local and seasonal produce, efforts could be concentrated on educating urban consumers. Extension personnel looking to incorporate new educational initiatives should also take into account that consumers within different markets in the mid-Atlantic U.S. region will vary in their knowledge of, and purchasing behavior for, locally grown and seasonal produce.


Use of trade names does not imply endorsement of the products named or criticism of similar ones not named. The authors would like to thank Edward Yoder, Department of Agricultural and Extension Education, for his assistance with statistical analysis. Funding for this research was provided by the USDA Specialty Crops Research Initiative, NIFA Award Number 2008-51180-04891.


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