The 10 Best and Worst States for Eating Local Food

Everyone loves a list, but how well does the annual Locavore Index reflect how we eat in the United States?

(Photo: Thomas Barwick/Getty Images)

Apr 9, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

If you’re passionate about eating local, apparently you can’t do better than living in Vermont.

That is, at least, according to the latest Locavore Index from Strolling of the Heifers, a nonprofit that advocates for access to local healthy food that, coincidentally (right?), is based in Vermont.

For the fourth straight year, the little sliver of a state in New England tops the list of states where eating local is easiest. Furthermore, all four top states kept their ranking from last year, even as a couple new ones joined the top 10. Here they are, with last year’s ranking in parentheses:

1. Vermont (1)
2. Maine (2)
3. New Hampshire (3)
4. Oregon (4)
5. Massachusetts (11)
6. Wisconsin (8)
7. Montana (9)
8. Hawaii (5)
9. Rhode Island (6)
10. Connecticut (20)

Likewise, there was only a bit of shuffling at the bottom of the list, where the 10 worst states to eat local mostly just swapped a couple spots. (The index also counts the District of Columbia; hence, the total of 51.)

42. Arkansas (47)
43. Alabama (42)
44. Georgia (40)
45. Oklahoma (46)
46. Mississippi (45)
47. Louisiana (48)
48. Florida (41)
49. Nevada (50)
50. Arizona (49)
51. Texas (51)

Now, I’m as much of a sucker for a provocative ranking system as the next person, and it’s hard to fault a small nonprofit for its efforts to raise awareness about the importance of eating local. But just what does the Strolling of the Heifers index tell us about the state of locavorism in the U.S.?

As with its past rankings, the group calculates the number of farmers markets, CSAs, and locally oriented “food hubs” per capita, as well as the percentage of a state’s school districts with farm-to-school programs. This year it added another important measure: data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Census of Agriculture, which gives the dollar volume of direct-to-the-public food sales by farmers. Strolling of the Heifers then calculated that on a per capita basis as well.

Thus we see that residents in Vermont spend an average of nearly $44 per year on local food at farmers markets and the like, versus a paltry $1.04 spent by consumers in last-place Texas. The new data would seem to explain the jump by Massachusetts and Connecticut into the top 10.

“The new direct sales data included in the Index from the Census of Agriculture shows that in states where farms are more diversified—including all the New England states—and where you see fewer large, monocultural commodity-producing farms, the per-capita direct-to-consumer sales levels are higher,” Martin Langeveld, director of marketing at Strolling of the Heifers, said in a statement.

Yet it might seem odd that an index about eating local would take such a relatively broad, statewide view of any given market, which no doubt makes an apples-to-apples comparison difficult. Large states with densely populated urban areas fare somewhat poorly here, even as they account for the bulk of direct-to-consumer sales by farms. At $170 million, California farms lead the nation in the amount of food sold directly to consumers; New York ranks second, at just over $100 million. Yet on the Locavore Index, they rank 36 and 20, respectively.

And there’s evidence that Strolling of the Heifers’ farmers-market focus may itself become somewhat obsolete in terms of measuring the strength of the fast-changing market for local foods. As the USDA ag census reports, direct sales to consumers by farms has increased 8 percent since 2007, yet between 2002 and 2007, it increased 32 percent.

That slowdown seems to be reflected as well in the pace of new farmers markets opening in the U.S. While 2014 saw yet another record year in the number of farmers markets operating in the U.S., with some 8,268 registered with the USDA, that represented a mere 1.5 percent increase over 2013, far less than the double-digit increases that occurred from 2008 to 2012.

So does that mean local eating has jumped the shark, a passing fad like tapas, cronuts, and flavored martinis?

Not exactly.

As interest in local eating has grown, so have the means of distribution for local farmers. The explosion of farm-to-school programs, which the Locavore Index measures, is one such avenue. But as NPR reported earlier this year, there are myriad other ways local food is finding its way to market, with middlemen distributing it to restaurants, grocery stores, and the like—a trend not reflected in the Locavore Index.

It may not be that our collective commitment to local eating has peaked, but we may have reached a saturation point when it comes to farmers markets. You might feel great chatting up your friendly local farmer about his crop of heirloom tomatoes, but what is the farmer getting out of it?

“It’s just not as cost-effective for producers to be face-to-face with consumers,” Sarah Low, an economist at the USDA, told NPR. “A lot of farmers like to spend their time farming, not necessarily marketing food.”