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Leopold Center Issues Locally Grown Food Report

AMES, Iowa — A new report from the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture shows that locally grown produce traveled an average of 56 miles from farm to point of sale, while the same types of produce from conventional sources within the United States traveled an average of 1,494 miles nearly 27 times farther to reach the same points of sale.

Leopold Center Marketing and Food Systems Program Leader Rich Pirog and Iowa State University student Andrew Benjamin looked at produce sales transactions to institutions that participated in an “All-Iowa meal” brokering project coordinated by Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI). The data represented fresh fruits and vegetables from 34 Iowa farms sold in 2001 to 23 conference centers, hotels and other institutions in central Iowa.

“We wanted to know how the miles logged by Iowa fresh produce arriving at institutions compared to miles logged had this produce come from more conventional locations across the country,” Pirog noted. “We used the PFI data set and what we knew about fresh produce commerce in the Midwest to make our comparisons.”

Their comparisons showed that mileage also varied widely by produce type. Conventionally sourced broccoli traveled more than 90 times farther than its local counterparts, and carrots and sweet corn more than 70 times farther.

Using a formula representing both distance and weight of the load transported, Pirog and Benjamin calculated a weighted average source distance, or the “food miles” for each of 16 produce types in the PFI-brokered sales data. The pair then examined 1998 records for these 16 produce items arriving at the Chicago and St. Louis terminal produce markets, and current national produce shipment data to determine which states in the continental United States supply the upper Midwest with 50 percent or more of the produce. They used this information to calculate food miles for the produce items in a conventional system, substituting the weights and points of sale for the PFI produce transactions so that comparisons could be made with the locally grown food miles.

Within the conventional data set pumpkins, cabbage and potatoes traveled the fewest miles, between 8 and 15 times farther than their local counterparts. Pirog and Benjamin also found that the sum of the food miles to supply the 16 fruits and vegetables from local sources was 715 miles, about the distance from Des Moines to Denver. The sum of the food miles for the conventional produce was 25,301 miles, roughly a trip that would circle the earth pole to pole starting and ending in Des Moines, plus 440 additional miles north to the Canadian border.

“We’re now researching how best to communicate the food miles concept to consumers who want local food but also demand freshness, taste and quality,” Pirog added.

For a copy of the report, “Checking the food odometer: Comparing food miles for local versus conventional produce sales to Iowa institutions,” contact the Leopold Center at (515) 294-3711, or go to the Center’s Web site: www.leopold.iastate.edu/pubinfo/papersspeeches/food_travel072103.pdf

A chart showing the comparisons is available as a PDF on the Leopold Center Web site: http://www.leopold.iastate.edu/images/FOOD_CHART.pdf

Through its research and education programs, the Leopold Center supports the development of profitable farming systems that conserve natural resources. Center funding comes from state appropriations and from fees on nitrogen fertilizer and pesticides, as established by the 1987 Iowa Groundwater Protection Act.

Contacts: Rich Pirog (515) 294-1854, rspirog@iastate.edu, or Laura Miller, (515) 294-5272

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