The 10 Best (and Worst) States to Eat Local

The third annual Locavore Index includes some surprises.

(Photo: Monica Itziar Aya Cuesta/Getty Images)

Apr 10, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“Eat local,” they say—but where is local eating the easiest?

A Vermont-based group has released its annual ranking of states based on the availability of local food to the average citizen. It’s the third annual Locavore Index compiled by Strolling of the Heifers (here’s a hint for the complete story on where that quirky name came from: It’s a play on Pamplona’s running of the bulls).

How does a relatively small nonprofit tally the availability of local food nationwide? The index comprises four publicly available statistics per state:

• Number of farmers markets

• Number of CSAs

• Number of food hubs (i.e., “facilities that handle the aggregation, distribution and marketing of foods from a group of farms and food producers in a region”)

• Percentage of school districts with farm-to-school programs

The first three are divided per 100,000 residents. Farmers markets and CSAs are weighted at 30 percent each, while food hubs and farm-to-school programs are weighted at 20 percent.

This gives you a pretty decent idea of which states are most convenient when it comes to buying and eating locally grown and raised food, though it’s worth noting that the model doesn’t measure per capita consumption (that is, ranking access to local food doesn’t equate with ranking how much of it is being bought—a difficult thing to evaluate, to be sure).

So which states make it easiest to eat local? Here are the top 10:

1. Vermont
2. Maine
3. New Hampshire
4. Oregon
5. Hawaii
6. Rhode Island
7. North Dakota
8. Wisconsin
9. Montana
10. Iowa

That Strolling the Heifers’ home state of Vermont ranks No. 1 for the third year in a row might raise some eyebrows (though I guess the numbers don’t lie), but there are some other surprises here too. You go, Rhode Island and North Dakota! And for all the lament that the nation’s farm belt has been given over to mega-crops of transgenic corn and soybeans, it’s also heartening to see Iowa make an impressive showing.

As for two big, generally progressive states where enthusiasm for local food would appear to be strong, New York (home to all those quaint Hudson Valley farms) ranks a decidedly middling 23, while California (hello, Alice Waters) comes in at a fairly shocking 38. [still doesn't answer why CA was so low, just that it was...]

That doesn’t quite land the Golden State in the list of the 10 worst states for access to locally grown food. Those are:

1. Texas
2. Nevada
3. Arizona
4. Louisiana
5. Arkansas
6. Oklahoma
7. Mississippi
8. Illinois
9. Utah
10. Alabama

This just adds to the list of embarrassing No. 1 rankings for Texas, alongside things like being the execution capital of the country and providing the worst health care.

The premise behind the Locavore Index is even more interesting to consider in light of Walmart’s surprise announcement that it’s “rolling back” the price of 100 or more organic items big-time. As Forbes reports: “Walmart’s new Wild Oats organic products—including kitchen cupboard staples like olive oil and black beans—will cost about 25 percent less than those sold by competitors, based on price comparisons of 26 national brands.”

The move is being hailed as another boon for the already burgeoning organic food industry—but therein lies the rub. Since the USDA came up with a legal standard for just what the “organic” label means more than a decade ago, consumer interest in organic food has soared (sales growth of organic products has routinely outpaced conventional groceries in recent years, often by double digits).

Yet that’s transformed organics into an industry, which critics say more or less misses the point: Food produced on an industrial scale doesn’t necessarily (or even likely) support local farms, nor does it address environmental concerns such as carbon pollution. Those organic bananas still have to be shipped all the way from Central America.

So as Walmart seeks to go head-to-head with Whole Foods, it seems “local” today may very well be what “organic” was a decade ago.