Hobby Farms Editors
June 9, 2015

How Local Can You Go? - Photo by USDA/Flickr (HobbyFarms.com) 

According to the Strolling of the Heifers Locavore Index, the Northeast has this local-eating thing down. Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire are ranked as the top-three states with a commitment to local foods. Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut are in the top 10. I applaud them and wonder how they manage to do it with a shorter growing season than so many other states that place so far behind them. On the other hand, Kentucky, the state I call home, is ranked No. 29, which is not quite as embarrassing as food-production behemoths California coming in at 36 and Florida at—this seems totally unreasonable—48.

It’s safe to say that the whole country has room for improvement here. This is a statement backed up by University of California-Merced professor Elliot Campbell, whose team determined that up to 90 percent of Americans can be fed entirely by food produced within 100 miles of their homes. In most places, 80 to 100 percent of a population can be fed with food grown or raised within 50 miles. If you live in Montana and your current diet largely involves olive oil, avocados, bananas and seafood, transitioning to an all-local eating regimen will take some changes, of course. Also, eating fewer calories derived from animal sources contributes to more of a population being able to be fed locally. Overall, though, local-food systems actually appear do-able.

Making This Happen

States were ranked in the Strolling of the Heifers report using a number of factors:

  • direct-to-consumer farm-product sales, such as through farmers markets, roadside stands and community-supported agriculture
  • the numbers of farmers markets, CSAs and food hubs per capita
  • the percentage of school districts with farm-to-school programs

The organization looked at the USDA’s Agriculture Census numbers but pointed out that the states on top of the list are those that have strong local-foods programs and policies. The Vermont FEED farm-to-school initiative and Vermont Fresh Network producer-to-consumer connection are two such programs that promote locally produced food in the state.

Campbell’s team, on the other hand, focused less on participation in the farm-to-table movement and instead looked at the farmland itself. Taking the farmland surrounding a metro area, calculating how many calories it can produce, and comparing those calories with the population and its estimated calorie needs led to this local-foods determination. I don’t think these researchers took into account all of the urban farmers and the people growing their own food—often missed in USDA census considerations—when determining caloric coverage, so really the percentage of people able to be fed locally can be even higher.

It’s important to recognize that Campbell’s study points to the potential for local foods to sustain a population. He points out that this potential has actually declined over time as housing, commercial and industrial development has taken priority over farmland preservation and use. As a result, careful planning and policies—like those being implemented in the Locavore Index’s top states—are needed to maintain this potential moving forward.

Campbell’s study, “The Large Potential of Local Croplands to Meet Food Demand in the United States,” was published in the Ecological Society of America’s Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment this month.

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