BRATTLEBORO -- You're never going to be able to get a carrot to tell you how far it traveled to get to your plate.
Across the country more people have better access to locally grown and produced food, according to the 2014 Strolling of the Heifers Locavore Index, but quantifying that growth remains an imperfect science.
Is a carrot that is grown in southern California and trucked 500 miles north to Sacramento local?
How about a head of kale that is harvested in Vermont and then shipped 50 miles across the New York border?
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is gathering more data on locally sourced food than ever before, and as the 2014 Locavore Index shows the number of farmers' markets, CSAs and food hubs are increasing.
The number of farmers' markets jumped by almost 4 percent between 2013 and 2014, growing from 7,860 to 8,166.
And in 2013 the Locavore Index identified 5,660 community supported agriculture programs, or CSAs, across the U.S. This year the index found 6,038 CSAs, an increase of almost 7 percent.
In 2002 Orly Munzing founded Strolling of the Heifers to recognize the agricultural community around Brattleboro, where the annual Strolling of the Heifers parade and food fair is held every year during the first weekend of June.
This is the third year Strolling of the Heifers put out its Locavore Index, which rates every state on its commitment and support of locally sourced food.
Munzing said that while the index has increased its measures this year, including the number of farm-to-school programs for the first time, she hopes the index will continue to drive local, state and national discussions on the need to improve the collection of data.
"For all the attention that locavorism has received in recent years, reliable and consistent state-by-state statistics on local food consumption are hard to come by," Munzing said.
2014 Locavore Index
For the second year in a row Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire were ranked as the top three states for supporting locally sourced food.
The Locavore Index looks at the number of farmers' markets, CSAs and food hubs in each state and compares those statistics on a per capita basis.
Food hubs are facilities, usually cooperatively owned, that aggregate, distribute and market locally grown food to help distribute those food products over a wider area.
This year the index also tracked the percentage of school districts in the state with a farm-to-school program.
The index uses three USDA databases that track farmers' markets, food hubs and farm-to plate-programs, as well as LocalHarvest, a national database of CSAs.
Abbey Willard is the Vermont Agency of Agriculture Food and Markets local food administrator.
Willard said Vermont has been able to grow and support its local food programs through a coordinated effort that starts with very strong consumer support and extends to state government that supports the movement with legislation and money.
Vermont actually has a legal definition of local food, after the Legislature approved a bill in 2009 that set a standard for anything grown in the state, or within 30 miles of the state line.
Still, institutions like schools and hospitals, distributors and food processors have each developed their own standards, and at a recent meeting with stakeholders from around the state Willard said it became apparent that there has to be better agreements on what everyone is calling "local."
"We have found that there is room for improvement in the tracking mechanisms we have," Willard said. "It is not that easy to track local sales."
Willard said while the state's top ranking in the Locavore Index comes after years of supporting and developing local food systems, it was also important to arrive at more widely accepted standards to gauge the growth and determine the impacts the sales have on farms, health and the local economy.
"Right now 'local' does not have a set standard and everyone has a different value for it," Willard said. "People make an effort to buy local because it has ecological advantages, or because of food safety, or because it supports the local economy. It has a different meaning for each audience."
University of Vermont Extension Vegetable and Berry Specialist Vern Grubinger said the work Strolling of the Heifers does, including the Locavore Index, helps fuel the ongoing conversation about what local means.
Grubinger said in many ways the 'local' conversation is where the organic movement was 35 years ago before national organic standards were created.
He said legislation might not necessarily be the best way to settle the debate, and the Locavore Index shows that in spite of all the confusion more people are paying attention to where their food is grown.
"We are a lot better about it than we were a few decades ago but it gets complicated real quickly," Grubinger said. "It is getting much more mainstream. Supermarket studies show that 'local' is a powerful word, but even though a lot of people want it, not everyone can agree on exactly what it is."
Farm to school
This is the first year the Locavore Index included farm-to-school programs, which encourage local purchasing and incorporate school gardens and agricultural components into the school day.
Oregon jumped from seventh place in 2013 to fourth this year, largely on the strength of its farm-to school-programs. According to the index, 68 percent of Oregon school districts have farm-to-school programs.
Megan Kemple is program director of the Willamette Farm and Food Coalition and state lead to the National Farm to School Network.
She said Oregon has been able to grow its farm-to-school program by coordinating work between nonprofit groups, volunteers, the departments of agriculture and education, and by convincing lawmakers to support the work.
There are 505 school gardens across the state and more than 200 trained garden educators.
The Legislature last year agreed to invest $1.2 million in the farm-to-school program and the state held its first school garden summit in January.
"There is a lot of support for this. People see the value in it," said Kemple. "It is growing every year. There are a number of ways it leads to creating healthy local food systems and there is a lot of interest in starting school programs right now."
The National Farm to School Network was started in 2007 to promote farm-to-school programs, provide technical assistance, information and training and to advocate for policy on state and federal levels.
In 2007 there were about 2,000 school garden and farm-to-school programs across the U.S. and that number increased to about 13,000 by 2012, said Anupama Joshi, executive director and co-founder of the National Farm to School Network.
And not only has the number of schools grown, but the programs are getting more complex and mature, Joshi said, with support on the district and state levels driving curriculum, local purchasing, an increase in school gardens, and ultimately a stronger local agriculture economy.
But Joshi agrees that there has to be better national standards to quantify that growth.
"We still have a good way to go to really understand the data," she said. "When schools are buying wholesale it is very hard to track their local purchase when no one can agree on what local means."
"It tastes better"
Erin Barnett is the executive director of LocalHarvest, the national network that Strolling of the Heifers uses to track the growth of CSAs.
Local Harvest has an interactive website that allows consumers across the country to enter their zip code and find the nearest farmers' market or CSA.
The organization also supports CSAs with technical, financial and marketing information
More than 7 million people used the website last year to help them gain access to more locally grown food, and since starting 14 years ago, Barnett said LocalHarvest has seen steady and substantial growth every year.
The interest from consumers is also driving the steady growth in the number of CSAs, she said, and every year about 800 farms start CSAs.
The push by USDA to recognize the importance of healthy and locally grown food, a cultural change that has made farmers' markets the hip place to be and economic data that support the notion that local food keeps money in the local economy have all added to the steady increase, but it goes beyond even all of that, Barnett said.
"People make these choices for a lot of reasons, but when it comes down to it we are a pleasure-driven people," she said. "It looks better, it smells better and it tastes better. The food is really good and our bodies know the difference."
To see this year's Locavore Index, go to www.StrollingoftheHeifers.com
Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 279, or email@example.com. Follow Howard on Twitter @HowardReformer.