Do you know how far your food has traveled?

A few days ago I was looking for insightful quotes about agriculture, sustainability, and bartering. I stumbled upon a quote from Barbara Kingsolver’s book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, in which she wrote that “The average food item on a U.S. grocery shelf has traveled farther than most families go on their annual vacations.” Although I don’t know how far the average vacation distance is, I started to wonder just how far does food typically travel to reach a grocery store? To fulfill my curiosity, I started researching how far the average food item travels, and unsurprisingly, the answer is fairly complicated.

The first answer you’ll often find when exploring this question is a simple “1,500 miles.” This is somewhat of a statistical half-truth. In 1998, a group of academics from the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture were curious about the average distance food traveled to reach grocery stores. They amassed data from the Chicago International Produce Market, the largest wholesale market in the Midwest. Their data was mostly limited to where the food item was grown, and they only examined foods from the US and Mexico. With this information, they charted how many points of origin existed for each food and what percentage of it came from Mexico. From there, since they did not have data on the exact source of each item, they determined the geographical center of each state, and used GPS to find the most likely shipping route by truck from that point to Chicago. They averaged the distance of the trips, and put out an average number of miles for each item. 

An example of a food they looked at is apples. There were 8 different states which supplied apples to the Chicago International Produce Market, and none of them came from Mexico. Applying their method of using the center point of each state, the apples travelled an average of 1,555 miles before reaching Chicago. This model was used for 29 other fruit and vegetables, and they took the average of each of the foods together to reach a composite average of  about 1,500 miles. 

With all this in mind, it becomes clear that there are some problems answering the question “How far does the average food item travel before it reaches a grocery store?” with 1500 miles. Firstly, the study that generated this answer was conducted 22 years ago and was limited to Chicago. The research is also limited to individual food items, like pieces of fruit or vegetables, not multi-ingredient food items. According to the National Resource Defense Council, the average American meal contains ingredients from at least five other countries. The study didn’t include items coming from outside of the US or Mexico. Popular items like almonds, bananas, and kiwis were excluded from the list of foods they examined. Processed foods, dairy, and meat were also not featured. It is also worth noting that the method of determining how far the food went to reach Chicago doesn’t reflect the reality of our food supply chain.

This chart, produced by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, shows just how many times a food item can change hands before it reaches the grocery store shelf. After being harvested, food items can change hands three or four times before reaching a grocery store. At each step, that food the item is traveling between different locations, adding to its mileage. While the method used in the study treats the food as though it makes a beeline from farm to wholesaler, that is unlikely. 

One example of how far food can travel due to the food supply chain is Hawaiian sugar. Sugarcane grown in Hawaii is often processed locally into raw sugar. Not traveling too far, right? Well, the raw sugar is then shipped to California to be refined, but that’s not the end of its journey. If the sugar is being put into individual packets, like you might find in a cafe or restaurant, it gets shipped across the country to New York to be packaged. From New York, these sugar packets are distributed across the United States, including Hawaii. You might go to a cafe in Maui and put some sugar in your coffee that was grown only a few miles away. However, between the field and your coffee, it would have travelled 10,000 miles.

So ultimately, there is not a simple numerical answer to the question. For a lot of food items though, it is very far, so Kingsolver’s quote definitely holds true.

On the food supply chart you can see a dotted blue line that goes directly from farmers to consumers. This line represents things like farmers markets, CSA farms, or person to person exchanges like Galora! These methods of obtaining produce result in food with a much lower average mileage. 

But why is food mileage important? 

Food miles are important because the distance food travels to reach a consumer contributes to the climate impact of foods. There are numerous factors involved, such as whether it was grown organically or if the land used was made arable sustainably, but food miles are one important factor to consider. Beyond climate, food miles are also important in terms of nutrition. Food that travels long distances is often picked unripe and then artificially ripened chemically. It is also commonly refrigerated for extended periods of time and kept edible using chemical preservatives. Interestingly, long term refrigeration can also affect the core nutritional value of the food items. Spinach, for example, was found to lose 47% of its vitamin B after being refrigerated for eight days. A general rule of thumb: the fresher your food is, the better it is for the climate and your health.

How can you start eating more local food? Step number one is to know what foods grow in your area in each season. There are numerous places online where you can find this information for your region, but one good resource I have found is this tool. If you put in the time of year and your state, this site will give you a fairly thorough list of what is in season near you.

Next, you need to know where to actually find the local food. This is where Galora comes in. With Galora, you know the entire supply system. Someone in your community grew it, you reach out to them, barter, and go get it. That’s it. You are getting it from the grower’s hands.

Aside from Galora, Farmers Markets are another effective way to find locally grown food. If you are in California, check out this post to find a Farmers Market near you! At the moment we have tables showing all the markets in Los Angeles, Orange County, San Diego, and San Francisco. More cities will be added soon! If you are in a colder part of the country where the markets close in the winter, this article might provide some helpful tips to continue eating a highly local diet.

If you have any questions or comments about this article, or Galora more generally, send me an email at [email protected] or leave a comment below! And if you would like to contribute to the blog, reach out to us at [email protected]!