Many U.S. cities have established goals to increase local food self-reliance, suggesting that metropolitan areas do not produce enough food to support local household demand. However, a new study from researchers with the Sustainable Healthy Cities Network at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs found that this isn’t the case for many metropolitan areas.
The study, published in Environmental Science & Technology, looked at the actual food production and consumption patterns within the borders of 377 metropolitan areas across the country. Researchers found that one in five has enough milk and egg production inside its borders to meet residents’ demands, evaluated on an annual basis. About one in 10 can fully meet the fruit and vegetable needs of residents.
“The issue is not that we lack agricultural production in and around cities, but that our present-day supply chains may not be matching local production with local demand,” said Peter Nixon, co-author of the study and a doctoral student in the department of bioproducts and biosystems engineering in the College of Science & Engineering and the College of Food, Agricultural & Natural Resource Sciences at the University of Minnesota.
These statistics are noteworthy because the study found that many metro areas currently have the capacity for local food production to fully meet both direct and indirect demand for four key items: milk, eggs, fruits and vegetables. Indirect demand includes food used as ingredients in processed food (e.g., eggs used in bread, tomatoes used in pasta sauce, milk in cheese and butter, etc.).
Some self-sufficient metros are in locations with a high concentration of specific agricultural production, such as apples grown in Washington state and oranges grown in Florida. Milk and eggs were seen to be more broadly produced around urban areas across the U.S. For the urban areas that aren’t self-sufficient, researchers found that the median local capacity is about 5% for eggs and fruits, 18% for dairy and 23% for vegetables. This means that most of these metro areas already produce enough of these foods to supply a significant portion of local demand, yet locally produced food may not be making it to local consumers.
“Indeed, the results suggest that we should think carefully about what specific purposes increasing local agriculture in and around cities will serve: Is it to boost the local economy or to serve underserved communities? Our data set can help individual urban areas understand their own particular situation with regard to production-demand for food as a starting point for further food systems planning,” said Anu Ramaswami, co-author and advisor on the study.
Moving forward, the research team plans to work with individual cities to help prioritize urban food action planning to best meet their specific goals, context and stakeholder needs.