What do the numbers say?
At CISA, we believe that we can double the amount of local food in the diets of Pioneer Valley residents, making local food a full 25% of what we eat by 2035.
Where did this number come from?
First CISA had to determine how much local food we all eat right now.
We estimate that 12.5% of our current diet is local.
Our estimate was not easy to come by. Unfortunately, the data is spotty on the question of how much local food we all eat. Unlike population information (counted every ten years by the US Census) or the number of farms (tracked every seven years by the National Agriculture Statistics Survey), the government doesn’t measure the amount of local food in our diets.
There is little data available to measure local vs. non-local food calories or local food consumption by weight or volume. We know more about the economic transactions (how much food is purchased and sold locally) than we do about our local eating habits. Therefore, we decided it was most useful to focus on local spending for local food as a proxy for the amount of local food in our diets.
Once we chose dollar value as our measuring unit, we had to find the best way to estimate that number, since the exact number is not available.
There are several ways to do this, and to come up with our final estimate we looked at the following three:
- The amount of money directly spent on local food. This is the amount of money farmers receive for their crops, including direct sales through CSAs, at farmers’ markets or farm stands, and purchases by restaurants, retailers, distributors, and other wholesale buyers. In Vermont’s Farm to Plate study, they added together all of the direct spending on local food that they could track. In order to replicate that method in our three-county area, CISA compiled the following available data. According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture (NASS, 2009), Pioneer Valley farmers sold $8.9 million dollars in agricultural products directly to consumers via farm stands, farmers’ markets, and CSAs. In 2013, CISA Local Hero restaurants reported that the total value of local food and farm products purchased by local restaurants was $2 million. Institutional sales (purchases made by schools, hospitals, colleges etc.) were last recorded in 2005/2006 at $0.22 million directly from local farms. In addition, we know that local retailers and manufacturers also purchase meaningful amounts of local food directly from farms, although aggregate data is not readily available (River Valley Market alone reports that they spent $3.17 million with local farmers and producers in fiscal year 2013). Combined, we have data that shows at least $14.3 million dollars is spent locally on local agricultural products, which represents less than 1% of total food consumption. Since 91% of groceries are purchased through a store and since many of our grocery stores do in fact make an effort to purchase local products, this figure is a gross underestimate of local purchase.
- Economic modelling to derive local purchase information. According to IMPLAN, an economic modeling program, 15.8% of the household food purchased in the three counties is local products sold by farms in the three counties. IMPLAN is an economic modeling tool developed to measure the effect on a specific region of a specific economic activity. It is widely used in assessing current impacts of an industry across the economy and for estimating the impact of a change in an industry, such as an increase in agricultural production or the loss of a milk processing plant. Data from IMPLAN suggests that in the three counties, 59.81% of the demand for vegetables and melons (from wholesalers, processors, and all other consumers) is met by local supply, while only 0.89% of demand for poultry and eggs are met by local supply. Since IMPLAN is based on aggregated data (most of it collected by the government through national surveys) it can easily over- or under-estimate the impact of specific products.
- A comparison of the value of local food produced compared to the amount of total food consumed locally. This method looks at the value of local food we currently produce in our region and compares it the value of food we actually consume, by major food categories (fruits, vegetables, milk, poultry and eggs, etc.). It assumes that we will choose to buy local products first and that all local demand is satisfied before products grown here are exported elsewhere. One example of how these assumptions can generate flawed results is in the fruit category. The study compares the value of fruit produced in the state and the value of all fruit consumed in the state to determine the amount of locally grown fruit that is consumed by MA residents, although most of the fruit grown in Massachusetts is cranberries, which are largely grown for export. According to research completed by Timmons et. al. Massachusetts as a whole is producing enough agricultural products to, at a maximum, meet 5.6-7.3% of the state’s food needs. Using the methodology presented by Timmons et. al shows that farms in the three counties of the Pioneer Valley could meet 17.6% of our food needs. Of course, this does not tell us how much local food we are actually eating, because some of the food we could buy and eat gets sold outside of our region and other food is shipped into our region.
All three available methodologies, thus, are imperfect. The first methodology gives us a gross under-representation of the amount of food purchased that is local (at less than 1%), and the other two provide slightly exaggerated estimates (at 15.8% and 17.6%). Our estimate that 12.5% of our food is purchased locally represents our best guess, taking these numbers into account.
Can we double the amount of local food in our diets by 2035?
- There’s lots of room for Pioneer Valley residents to eat more locally grown food. Almost all of us can do more to prioritize local food when making our food purchases, and we can also work together to make sure that locally grown food is easily accessible to residents throughout our region. Recent studies that examine how much of our food we could possibly grow on New England’s farmland suggest that to maximize this percentage, we would need to make substantial dietary changes, such as eating less meat. But getting to 25% of our diet requires more minimal adjustments, such as substituting seasonal local vegetables for out-of-season imported ones.
- There’s also room for farmers to increase their production for local consumption. Several local and regional studies, some currently in process, are examining the question of how much of our food we could grow. Increasing our production will require increasing the land base used for agriculture. The New England Food Vision, for example, suggests that we could grow 70% of the food that we eat in New England by tripling the amount of farmland in production (potentially requiring the conversion of some forest lands), and making shifts in our diet. Research by the Conway School of Landscape Design found that Franklin County needs just under 8,000 more acres in agriculture to meet most of the nutritional needs of the residents of Franklin County, while still reserving 36,000 acres for production for sale outside of the county.