Sep 17, 2020 - Energy & Environment

Lots of U.S. cities could grow their own food locally

Illustration of a plant wrapped around a skyscraper.

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

A "sizable proportion of the population could meet its food needs" through farming within a 155-mile radius of its metropolitan area — fulfilling a locavore's dream, per a Tufts University study published this week.

Why it matters: The locavore and farm-to-table movements — as popularized by Michael Pollan, Alice Waters and others — inspire passion among foodies but actually represent just a small segment of U.S. agricultural activity.

Driving the news: The study looked at whether — in theory — 378 metropolitan areas "could meet their food needs from local agricultural land located within 250 kilometers [155 miles]."

  • Chicago, Seattle and Denver were among the big U.S. cities that would best be able to fulfill their own needs — with the big caveat that the current agricultural ecosystem would have to be radically upended.
  • New York, Los Angeles and Miami were among those with the least ability to feed themselves locally.

The intrigue: Ironically, the part of the country where interest in consuming local and regional food is the strongest — the "BoshWash" Northeastern corridor connecting Boston, New York and Washington, D.C. — is among the least conducive to feeding itself, according to Professor Christian Peters, lead author of the study, published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

  • "In most of the Northeast states, those cities would have a harder time meeting their food needs locally," Peters tells Axios.
  • There are a lot of caveats, too, said Peters, who's with the Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University.
  • For instance, "There's no universally agreed-to definition of what constitutes local food and what constitutes regional food."
  • "There's lots of inconsistent definitions, and that can be frustrating."

What they're saying: "Most cities along the Eastern Seaboard and in the southwest corner of the U.S. could not meet their food needs locally, even if every available acre of agricultural land was used for local food production," according to Peters.

  • “Yet, many cities in the rest of the country are surrounded by ample land to support local and regional food systems."

The bottom line: It's too early for locavores to rejoice.

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