The Personalization of Local Food

Nowadays, no matter what you are trying to sell, it must be fluid. At all times, it must adapt as much to people’s singular needs as to economic fluctuations or social, cultural and environmental expectations of the moment.

This means that products and services can no longer be homogeneous, as is usually the case in a classical economic model. On the contrary, they have to be increasingly singular, which means differentiated from one another. Local food is no exception. To be competitive and economically viable, this new socio-economic reality requires new ways of growing, distributing and marketing products. The challenge here is to simultaneously address the multidimensional reality of a given environment (including economic, social and cultural dimensions) and people’s singular needs.

The rise of the individual singularity

The personalization of everything is a concept that characterizes postmodern societies, where the fragmentation of temporal, cultural and local references leads individuals to constantly redefine their identities, values or ideals. The shared individual ideal now consists not of being original, but singular, which means different than each of its peers. This sociological phenomenon can be observed through examples like the explosion of gender identities in New York City, personalized news feeds with Google, personalized medicine or cancer treatments, as well as many ambiguous combinations of individual religious beliefs, political ideologies and food diets.

Singular needs and preferences for food

One of the characteristics of developed economies is food abundance. No matter what your socio-economic situation is in a developed economy, there are food products for you. Hence, the individual relation to food goes beyond subsistence; food preferences become an extension of individual’s singular identity. More than ever, dietary choices are intimately linked to the multiple dimensions that shape individuals’ identities. Of course, for a local food producer, singular individual identities can be puzzling as they can contain many contradictions.

Singularity of individual contradictions

With the omnipresence of the Present and an overabundance of cultural choices, individuals can now design themselves an identity “à la carte”, according to their needs at the moment. The individual contradictions that arise from singular identities may suddenly become hard to follow, often creating gaps between how people define themselves and their everyday actions. As an example: when it comes to food diets, people may strongly identify themselves as an adept of “Diet X”, while in reality they are mostly buying products of “Diet Y” and a bit of “Diet Z”. Nevertheless, individual contradictions make a person even more singular and are likely to be reflected in buying habits. It is not a question of seeking what is right or wrong, but rather a matter of recognizing this new reality instead of ignoring or judging it.

In this perspective, as defined by the French author Danilo Martuccelli, singularism (or the personalization of everything) assumes, from the start, a strong involvement of individuals in society, only because they ardently desire to see their singularity recognized (La société singulariste, 2010).

That being said, anyone who wants to develop a local and sustainable food system must absolutely take this into account when it comes to effectively producing, selling and distributing local products in the community. The commercial approach of a local food system must involve recognizing individual contradictions with an adequate supply, rather than trying to sell a homogeneous model or products. If done properly, the recognition of individual singularities may turn into an advantage for local producers.

A context that could favour smaller players

Major conglomerates in the agrifood sector are using audience segmentation to effectively develop and promote their products. This is a strategy used in commercial marketing to tailor products and services that satisfy the needs of targeted groups by dividing people into homogenous subgroups according to given sociodemographic criteria. This demonstrates an effort, at the corporate level, to meet ever more unique needs. However, the costs of large-scale production of singular products and services could be exorbitant, and the logistics even more complex. The peer-to-peer economic model may be one of the most relevant ways to address the increasing needs of singular individuals. With the right tools, small and micro scale production of food and services could better adapt to the fast-changing socioeconomic environment and address each singularity.

By looking at the past, we see that the peer-to-peer model for agriculture and food was common but wasn’t able to compete with the mass production model brought by the agricultural revolution. So why would it work now? It’s all about getting the right context. Back then, societies were mostly rural, lacking means of communication, and possessed no marketing knowledge (at least, not among the average population). Now, the game has changed, drastically. Generalized urbanization, democratization of efficient communication and food production technologies, as well as an extensive choice of marketing tools and strategies provide possibilities for small and micro-scale food producers like never before.

Market to each person, not to a group

To create dynamic, inclusive and sustainable local food systems, this new reality can be turned into a powerful ally for small and micro-scale food producers. They could be the ones who benefit the most from it, depending on the approach they choose to employ and how they market their products. This is where the use of the internet, data, IoT and eventually AI become extremely relevant for an efficient production and distribution of local food, as well as a timely and clear understanding of the needs of a given environment. Producers could not only be selling directly and easily to their buyers, they could also get to know the singularities of their clientele and that of their socioeconomic environments. Thus, they will have the means to quickly adapt what they grow and the quantity required, as well as where, when, how and to whom they sell. The challenge of building a sustainable local food system consists of growing and marketing food products that will match individual, singular needs and the requirements of local realities.

Founder of RakeAround, globetrotter and gardening amateur.