FEATURE STORY: Surprise! Florida Dead Last in 2012 Locavore Index

Well, maybe it is not such a surprise after all.  In a new national assessment of local-sourced food opportunities, Florida comes in at the very bottom.  The assessment was developed by Strolling of the Heifers, a Vermont-based sustainable food community, which is dedicated to protecting family farms and promoting locavorism.

It is kind of a funny word, Locavorism, and broadly refers to the growing national movement to eat locally-sourced food, with “local” typically defined as being within 100 miles of one’s residence.

Of course, it is much more than that.  As noted by Jessica Prentice, purported coiner of the word, locavore, “it’s about moving into a kind of food system where you’re connected to the source of your food. You’re buying from people you know or can meet and you’re buying food grown in place that you can easily drive to and see.”  It is all of that, and more.  It is also fundamentally supportive of the local economy and the local natural environment.  Suffice it to say, it necessarily builds communities and heightens social interaction.

Locavorism brings with it sustainability, if not regeneration. As noted by Strolling of the Heifers:

  •  Local food travels much less distance to market than typical fresh or processed grocery store foods, therefore using less fuel and generating fewer greenhouse gases.
  • Local food is fresher, and therefore healthier, spending less time in transit from farm to plate, and therefore losing fewer nutrients and incurring less spoilage.
  • Local food encourages diversification of local agriculture, which reduces the reliance on monoculture — single crops grown over a wide area to the detriment of soils.
  • Local food encourages the consumption of organic foods and reduces reliance on artificial fertilizers and pesticides.
  • Local foods create local jobs by supporting family farms and the development of local food processing and distribution systems.
  • Local foods create more vibrant communities by connecting people with the farmers and food producers who bring them healthy local foods.

Some of the major sources for locavores are farmers markets, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) enterprises, and local produce markets.  To these we can also add, community gardens, road-side produce stands, You-pick farms, your neighbor’s backyard garden, and even the okra plant you have growing in the pot on your back porch.  Importantly, however, not everything sold at markets and produce stands is locally sourced.  It is not uncommon at farmers markets to find produce from distant states and even other countries.  This is certainly the case with many farmers markets in the Tampa Bay region.  So, be careful to note where the farm is located when using farmers markets.  Curiously, reports have been received of some distributors, managers, and salespeople becoming indigent and ill tempered when questioned about the source of their farmers market produce.  Honesty and transparency is always the best policy when it comes to food – and life as a whole, for that matter.

What’s the deal, Florida?

Many of our readers are doubtless already committed locavores, or at least they are trying to be.  So it may come as something of a surprise to see Florida ranked at the very bottom of the list.  The surprise is heightened to shock, when considering that Florida is one of the nation’s leading agricultural states.  We are first in citrus (producing more than half of all grapefruit and tangerines, and nearly 75% of all oranges), first in tomato production, second in strawberry production, and at or near the top in all fresh vegetables during the winter months.  Florida is also 10th in beef production.  Just as an aside here, next time citrus season rolls around in Florida, take a moment to be surprised at finding California oranges are being sold at your local supermarket or big-box mega-store.

So, how does a state so robust in agricultural production end up last in local-sourced food consumption?  From a statistical standpoint the answer is easy. We have a huge population and a very poor local-food distribution system.  As the Heifers’ article notes, we have only “146 farmers markets and 193 CSAs for 18.5 million people.” By comparison, Vermont, which is first in the index, has  “99 farmers markets and 164 CSAs” in a state of less than a quarter-million people.  That’s what the data tell us – too few outlets to serve the population.

There are other explanations do bear in mind, however.  The first is the fact that the Florida food system is largely based on the industrial agriculture model.  This topic will be covered in an upcoming article. For now, it can be noted that the industrial model (from planting, growing, harvesting, purchasing, shipping, and retail selling) leaves little room for alternative production systems more compatible with locavorism.  Florida is certainly not alone in this, and there are plenty of small growers in the state, perhaps more than in many other agricultural states (such as those in the mid-West).  Those small growers, however, are hard pressed to operate independently of the industrial system, especially when it comes to selling their harvest and making a profit.

The second major explanation is a little harder to quantify, but it is very evident with even a little observation and a few conversations. The second explanation has to do with the buying habits of Florida consumers.  Most Floridians appear to be thoroughly socialized to the industrial food system. They may not know much about the production part of the process: heavy use of synthetic fertilizers and poisons, excessive water use, exploitation of labor, exploitation of the earth, and energy-intensive processing plants. Socialization in this case does not mean knowledge, but acceptance of the status quo without much questioning. In the case of food values, it means thinking of food only in terms of the end-result of industrial agriculture; supermarkets, refrigerated produce and meat, not fresh but frozen and canned, plastic packaging, blemish-free produce, over-sweetened and over-salted products of every kind, produce that is uniform and standardized in shape and appearance, low prices, and tasteless food.  The data ranking us last does not lie, but our well-rehearsed and stunningly unnatural and unsustainable relationship with food may be the more telling reason for our pitiful ranking.

There are other reasons for Florida being dead last in the Locavor Index, but these two (especially the latter) are worth bearing in mind when you review this report  or encounter it in other venues in the days and weeks ahead.   The good news is that despite the challenges to building a locavor culture here, new local food systems springing up throughout the state – especially in the Tampa Bay region.  So, the economic tide may well be turning.  The tide of consciousness certainly is.  In the meantime, keep looking for local food when you shop, use local markets and produce stands, seek out local organic growers, join a CSA, start a garden, or even plant some okra in a pot.  It does well in the summer months – and we’ll have more summer months than usual this year.

Links to sources referenced here and others of interest and note:

StrollingOfTheHeifers.com | Vermont tops Strolling of the Heifers Locavore Index; state tops nation in local food availability

CommonDreams.org | Locavorism on the Rise Everywhere’: US Consumers Turn to Smaller, Local Farms

COAsagePub.com | Food Values: The Local and the Authentic by Jeff Pratt (abstract in Critique of Anthropology)

GrowTomaotes.comtomato World Productions Statistics


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