This post is part of the Science Tuesday feature series on the USDA blog. Check back each week as we showcase stories and news from USDA’s rich science and research profile.
Interest in local and regional food systems has expanded in recent years. The evidence is everywhere: from the number of farmers markets more than doubling nationwide since 2004, to the rising popularity of “community supported agriculture” (CSA) participation, to the increasingly common sight of restaurants and retail grocery outlets stocking and promoting meat and produce from local farmers and ranchers. This consumer trend has implications for the farms that supply these markets, firms across the retail supply chain, and policy makers at the federal, state and local levels that often promote local foods in various nutrition, food assistance and community development programs.
Individual markets for local foods can differ greatly based on the types of crops and livestock that are produced nearby, the marketing channels in place to get local foods to consumers demanding them, and the seasonality of production, among other factors. ERS’s recently updated Food Environment Atlas provides an extensive set of county-level indicators that are important for understanding the market for foods produced and sold locally. Like USDA’s Compass Map on the Know Your Farmer-Know Your Food site, the Food Environment Atlas uses an online interactive mapping tool to provide information reflecting local food systems around the country.
Some of the indicators in the Atlas, like the number of farmers markets per county or the value of farm sales direct to consumers, measure specific and important segments of the local foods market. Others, like fresh market vegetable acres harvested, the number of fruit orchards, or the number of small slaughterhouse facilities within a county, are useful for understanding the potential supply of local foods. Still others, like a county’s number of food hubs and the number of farms marketing products through CSAs, give an indication of the infrastructure already in place to support local food sales.
The atlas makes for easy visual comparisons across counties and regions. For example, as the sample maps show, farmers markets tend to be most heavily concentrated along the perimeter of the continental United States – areas that also correspond with the highest concentration of vegetable acreage harvested for fresh market sales.
For any county on the map, the user can access a broad array of data to reveal the factors that could describe or influence local market sales. Just as every county is unique, no single statistic best describes the thousands of individual markets for local foods. But the Food Environment Atlas provides a rich source of information on the tapestry of factors that are useful for describing and understanding these markets.
Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan has pointed out the broad array of information the Atlas provides. We hope you will explore this mapping tool to gain a deeper understanding not only of the local food system that serves your own community, but also of the many other food environment indicators that describe food choices and diet quality in communities across the country.