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Consumers want local food, but most isn't

If you've noticed an increasing number of signs at the grocery store touting local produce and meat, don't be surprised. Retailers are trying to ride a hot business trend.

There's just one little problem: The vast majority of food isn't produced locally to where it's sold. The more consumers that want to buy local, the bigger a problem most retailers will have satisfying them.

According to a recent report supplied to CBS MoneyWatch by management consultancy A.T. Kearney, the local food movement was a $12 billion market in the U.S. in 2014 and is expected to grow at 9 percent a year through at least 2018. It's not just groceries and restaurants, either: 4,322 school districts have programs to buy food directly from farms, four times as many as in 2006. Seventy-eight percent of consumers are willing to pay 10 percent or more for local products.

Farm to table movement gaining steam

But as the Kearney survey of 1,500 consumers shows, the definition of local has been changing, at least in consumers' minds. Ninety-six percent say local means within 100 miles of where they shop. In 2014, 58 percent agreed to that definition, with most saying 400 miles was close enough.

That leaves a question of how many people can be satisfied by the local approach because most food production in the country is concentrated in just a few states: California, Iowa, Texas, Nebraska, Minnesota, Illinois, Kansas, North Carolina, Wisconsin and Indiana, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Last year they were responsible for 54 percent of all food production.

And within those states, agriculture is often concentrated in certain areas, which means consumer expectations are likely clashing with the reality of production and logistics. For example, University of California, Merced, research has shown that 30 percent of New York City's population could be fed by farms within 100 miles, while half of the residents of the Greater Los Angeles area could depend on farms within 100 miles.

But that doesn't mean consumers would get all the types of foods they might want, and even the available possibilities face challenges. Developers are snapping up farmland at a brisk rate in the Hudson Valley, north of New York, driving the city to consider offering money to farmers not to sell out. Southern California has felt some of the same real estate pressures as the state's northern part, given the need of well-heeled tech companies to find new places to build facilities.

Maybe restaurateurs and grocers can expand their marketing concepts from local produce and meats to foodstuffs that have a respectable, even though longer, commute.