90 Percent of US Could Live on Food Grown Entirely Within 100 Miles

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Treehugger / Christian Yonkers

New farmland-mapping research shows the country’s surprising potential when it comes to eating more locally.

In all the years that I’ve been writing about choosing food grown nearby, the irony that persists is this: I can easily find and purchase food that was grown within 100 miles of my New York City address, but people who live in the middle of farming country cannot. If you ask me, that speaks of a screwy food system in need of help. We grow so much food in this country, yet the average food item travels, by one oft-quoted statistic, some 1,500 miles to reach our plates. Food miles aren't the only important thing when it comes to eating sustainably, but if we could make some shifts toward opting for things that were produced more closely, it would clearly be helpful.

jack and sons garden produce
Treehugger / Christian Yonkers

But would it be possible for everyone to eat locally? According to a new study by Elliott Campbell, a professor at the University of California, Merced, it is. In his research, he found that in fact, 90% of Americans could be fed entirely by food grown or raised within 100 miles of their homes. It's hypothetical of course, but the potential is intriguing. And hopeful.

marigolds and tomatoes in garden
Treehugger / Christian Yonkers 

While he found that the potential to eat locally has declined over time – which makes sense given the way we are devouring land for development – much potential still remains.

90 percent of US could live on food entirely grown within 100 miles
UC Merced

Using data from a farmland-mapping project supported by the National Science Foundation and data about land productivity from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Campbell and his students at the university looked at the farms within a local radius of every American city. Next, they calculated how many calories the farms could produce and then estimated the percentage of the population that could be sustained entirely by food grown by those farms.

outdoor greenhouse blue sky
Treehugger / Christian Yonkers

“Farmers markets are popping up in new places, food hubs are ensuring regional distribution, and the 2014 U.S. Farm Bill supports local production — for good reason, too,” Campbell said. “There are profound social and environmental benefits to eating locally.”

They were surprised by the potential they found in major coastal cities. New York City, for example, could feed only 5% of its population within 50 miles – but extend that radius to 100 miles and the number goes up to 30%. The greater Los Angeles area could feed as much as 50% within 100 miles.

peppers grow in plastic containers
Treehugger / Christian Yonkers 

They also played around with different diet scenarios, with interesting results. For instance, local food around San Diego can support 35% of the people based on the average U.S. diet; switch that to a plant-based diet and the number shoots up to 51%.

veggies grow in windowsill garden
Treehugger / Christian Yonkers

“Elliott Campbell's research is making an important contribution to the national conversation on local food systems,” said author Michael Pollan. “That conversation has been hobbled by too much wishful thinking and not enough hard data — exactly what Campbell is bringing to the table.”