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What’s Keeping America From Eating Locally?

June 9, 2015

When locavores squawk about food miles and supporting farmers and eating locally, the objections tend to center around feasibility.

The argument: We can’t all eat locally because there aren’t enough farms to support every urban American consumer. Plus, the food system “ship” has sailed, the toothpaste is out of the tube, and our lives are just too enmeshed with the industrial food system. Locavorism, on a mass scale, is impractical, in other words.

Well, a bit of new research out of the University of California-Merced and published in the latest issue of Frontiers in the Environment seeks to disrupt that line of thinking. The research, published last week, claims to show that up to 90 percent of Americans could be fed entirely by food grown or raised within 100 miles of their homes.

Using a farmland mapping tool, researchers looked at major urban areas to determine approximately how many calories could be produced locally—both with existing urban and rural farms and future farmland. They found that most areas of the United States could feed upwards of 80 percent of their populations with food grown or raised within 50 miles.

For sure, seeing that we have the capacity, geographically, to improve local procurement of the foods we eat is exciting. But here’s why local-only isn’t enough to save our food system and improve America’s health.

One, in some of the most populous regions of the United States—the Northeast and Southern California–local farms within 100 miles only have the capacity to feed under 20 percent of the population. In this case, consumers should think regionally (as New England is) rather than just in terms of mileage, and perhaps more importantly support producers utilizing practices that align more closely with their values.

But even where local food procurement is geographically possible, it doesn’t mean most Americans will buy into it. Re-education on a massive scale would need to take place before most of us would buy into a radical re-localization of our food system.

Infrastructure for marketing and selling local food would need to be invented to match the time-tested machine of the industrial food system. And finally—perhaps most importantly for the American consumer—it has to be convenient and affordable.

One example of this phenomenon in action is the South Coast of Massachusetts. One of New England’s most fertile regions, the South Coast boasts more than 1,700 small farms on 108,000 acres across three counties. Yet residents in those counties still only spend about $5 per person annually on local food. All this to say that even in a politically progressive, agriculturally fertile region of the United States, local food purchasing on a mass scale still has a long way to go.

We shouldn’t have to choose between some utopian vision of every American knowing their farmer and the toxic, unjust industrial food system. It isn’t either-or, but both-and. We need to continue to return land to agricultural uses, come up with innovative new ways to connect farmers and eaters, and change our laws to give small food producers more of an even playing field with the big boys. But the same attention should be given to transforming the foods and products we are eating now and supporting farms and products that share our values now.

Because if a farm may be within 50 miles of our kitchen table plants genetically engineered seeds and soaks its crops in pesticides, does buying local really make sense?

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Steve Holt

Steve Holt's stories about food, nutrition and food politics are found at Civil Eats, TakePart.com, Boston Magazine, and elsewhere. He's been featured in the Best Food Writing anthology. Follow his tweets and Instagrams @thebostonwriter.

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