When word started to trickle through the food blogosphere that Strolling of the Heifers, the oddly-named Vermont-based group that focuses on trying to get people to eat locally, had released their second annual ranking of how the 50 states, plus whatever Washington D.C. is, stack up in terms of "commitment to local foods," I was intrigued. See, last year California ranked a depressing 41st on the list. But in the 12 months, there seemed to have been a substantial shift in thinking regarding locally-produced food.
Nearly every week, my inbox was bombarded with notices about new farmers' markets popping up throughout L.A. And the handful of times I made my way up to San Francisco over the past year, they were busting at the seams with fresh produce. Ariel Schwartz at Fast Company puts it best:
"I live in San Francisco, where you can't go for a jog without tripping over a farmers' market or two. Local food is everywhere -- as it should be in an agriculture-heavy state."
As the state's first- and fourth-largest cities, Los Angeles and San Francisco had to be good indicators of what was going on throughout the rest of California. And being the stat enthusiast I am, I was excited to see how the cultural changes would translate into something tangible.
So, let's take a look at the rankings, shall we? Drumroll, please!
(Go ahead, make the sound out loud. No one's listening.)
And California's ranking in this year's list of the Top Locavore States is...
One spot worse than last year.
(Your top ten, by the way: Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Iowa, Montana, Oregon, Wyoming, Wisconsin and Idaho, in that order.)
Scrolling through the index of the data used to come up with the ranking offers a few hints to California's low position. In regards to farmers' markets, California has a whopping 827, well above New York's second place tally of 647. And California is number two overall in regards to the amount of CSAs available throughout the state with 358. (N.Y. has a gaudy 418.) So the biggest thing seemingly at play is simply the massive population size of the state. With nearly 12 million more people than Texas's second place spot, it's important to remember that there's a whole lot of space between here and San Francisco.
One of the big problems the Index points out is the lack of "food hubs" in the state. According to their definition, "Food hubs are facilities that handle the aggregation, distribution and marketing of foods from a group of farms and food producers in a region." In other words, a centrally-located distribution center with shared equipment, already created supply chains, and shipping logistics professionals where nearby farmers can drop off their products to be entered into the pipeline. This allows them to not have to spend their time dealing with the headaches of the distribution process, and instead focus on what they do best: Growing food. (Farm Aid has a whole lot more information about them here, if you're so inclined.) And California only has nine of these food hubs scattered throughout the state. Virginia on the other hand, with a population of 30 million less than ours, leads the pack with twenty.
One of the first steps for our state government to help make our food become more locally-sourced, then, is to encourage the creation of more of these food hubs. While there was some talk of a strategy to help do this back in 2010, that plan seems to have turfed out so far. This is something that needs to be put back on the state's agricultural front-burner. And when the state starts getting their hands on some more food hubs, that will also help to solve the other big problem haunting our state: food deserts.
This 2011 chart from the USDA tells the tale, showing nearly one million of the state's residents living in areas without any supermarkets or large grocery stores nearby. One million! As we've seen, L.A. proper is not immune from having a spattering of food deserts throughout our metropolitan area, with most of them residing in our poorest areas in South L.A. And unfortunately, as the recent story regarding attempts to do away with that area's ban on new fast food stores being opened suggests, things seem to be moving in the wrong direction.
Luckily for us, then, there's a mayoral race coming up. It's as good of a time as any to start changing course and moving in the right direction.