A chart local foodies should see

A couple months ago I posted a piece on some food research done by economists at the University of Minnesota looking at several ways beef gets to the consumer in the Twin Cities.

The work fit well with one of the topics Ground Level is taking a look at — how some communities are trying to enhance their use of local food.

One conclusion was that neither a farmer selling his meat at a farmers’ market in downtown Minneapolis nor the system by which Kowalski’s gets its all natural beef from Kansas City to its supermarket on Grand Avenue in St. Paul was the most efficient in terms of how much fuel it takes to get the beef into the consumer’s hands.

Instead, by quite a margin, more efficient was the regional distribution operation run by Thousand Hills Cattle Co. in Cannon Falls, which buys from several dozen beef producers and delivers to a number of grocers and restaurants.

But that study, done for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, was only part of a rather elegant and rigorous piece of work by a number of economists around the country, coordinated by the U’s Professor Robert King. Today those people got together on campus and talked about their findings.

There was lots of discussion about some important issues. Is the demand for increasing food safety hurting small local food producers? What does “local” mean when it comes to food? Will private grocery chains worried about safety put greater restraints on local producers than state and federal regulators?

But I was stuck back on the food miles – fuel efficiency question because when you look at all the cases the study conducted, the conclusion was stark. Researchers looked at beef in Minnesota, blueberries in the Pacific Northwest, mixed greens in Sacramento, milk in Washington, D.C., and apples in New York and measured three supply systems for getting each one to market.

Check out where the green triangles fall on this chart, provided by Gigi DeGiacomo, research fellow in the U’s Department of Applied Economics.


That cluster down in the left corner shows that, as a group, the intermediate means of getting to market – collecting produce from a number of suppliers and distributing to a regional group of buyers — was the most efficient.

The blue diamonds represent mainstream grocery supply chains. As you might expect, there are a lot of food miles involved in some cases. The diamond on the far right represents Washington applies sold in New York, for example. High on food miles and not so good on efficiency either.

Also as you might expect, the red squares representing direct farmer-to-consumer sales are far to the left, meaning they involve few food miles to get to market. But they don’t always have economies of scale that allow fuel efficiency getting to market.

The intermediate supply chains that gain economies of scale by combining products from a number of producers and getting them to a variety of local markets clearly, as a group, outperformed the others in this study on that score.

One of the rationales for doing the study was to identify what obstacles there are to expanding the use of local foods. People offer lots of reasons to expand local food choices, from perceived health benefits to boosting the local economy. And there’s a lot to debate about whether local food delivers on those promises.

That cluster of green triangles in the corner provides a big clue that reducing the debate to one of food miles probably is a mistake.

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