Recently, some fellow data geeks and I spent (quite a lot of) time ranking all 50 states on the health and sustainability of their food systems, from soil to spoon.
We went through the trouble for a few reasons. First, as you may have heard in bits and pieces, the state of our farms, our food supply, and our dietary health is not good—globally, nationally, regionally, and likely even in your neighborhood. As all these things are interrelated, we wanted to dig into the data to better understand what’s going on. Second, when it comes to food systems, we believe that the United States can do better. And, since innovative solutions are already popping up across the country, highlighting these as models may be key to building a healthy, sustainable, and just world. Finally—call us crazy—but we just love data and (yes) food systems.
What’s the fuss about the food system?
Before explaining what we did, let me refresh your memory about some of the most worrisome food system trends. Globally, you likely know that with population growth, climate change, and 11 percent of the world facing hunger, pressures on food supplies and natural resources are intense. And although there’s growing dialogue around transformative solutions to these intertwined challenges, the United States isn’t exactly leading the way.
In the past year, we as a country fell squarely in the “also ran” category in a Food Sustainability Index; the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported that our public agricultural R&D funding has been losing ground; and we withdrew from the Paris Agreement, which addresses the growing threat of climate change (with serious implications for agriculture, and maybe also the nutritional quality of our food).
But you don’t have to look beyond our borders to see signs of trouble. US farms are disappearing, rural communities are struggling, policy debates are putting farmers and eaters under stress, the food system includes some of the worst employers in the country, the Gulf of Mexico dead zone continues to be huge, and so on. Clearly, we need to seek solutions, but where to begin?
The not-so-secret ingredients in our scorecard
With an eye toward opportunities, we set off to capture and crunch the numbers to provide a snapshot of the US food system. To this end, we delved into data dealing with different pieces of the problem, including farming practices, labor conditions, water quality, public health, and more. We explored data sources such as the USDA, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Census Bureau.
While we can’t possibly claim to have uncovered everything, we searched until we felt we had a critical mass of information representing food systems from coast to coast. With data for 68 indicators, we looked for patterns and potential (read more about our methods). We aimed to standardize data to compare states with both similarities and differences (natural resources, geographies, histories, cultures, populations, etc.). Finally, we grouped data into categories representing core aspects of the food system, and we synthesized these to get a sense of which states are leading the way.
The report? A mixed bag
All in all, our analysis revealed both strengths and weakness of US food systems, distributed all across the country. To learn more and see where your state falls in the rankings—with maps, charts, and stories—you should check out our interactive scorecard. Here, I’ll just offer a flavor for our findings:
- Action abounds: On the plus side, we found that different states rank better on different aspects of food systems, meaning that all states have a role to play in leading the way to a better future. From Alaska (with a smaller ecosystem footprint from its farms) to Wyoming (with farm production supporting relatively healthy diets), and California (boasting stronger farmer-to-eater infrastructure) to Maryland (a role model for conservation agriculture), states from sea to sea show strengths.
- Bright spots: In more good news, we discovered brilliant bright spots, even in states ranking lower in some aspects of our food system scorecard. For example, the Chillinois Young Farmers Coalition is devoted to improving the outlook of farming in Illinois, and Practical Farmers of Iowa has had a big hand in the recent surge of cover crop adoption—and associated conservation benefits—throughout that state.
- Costly consequences: While our focus was on opportunities, our analysis also exposed some of the dangerous consequences of our current conditions, from climate change contributions to water quality challenges to health outcomes and inequities. It’s also important to note that we ranked states against one another, not against some hypothetical ideal, so even top-ranking states have lots of room for improvement.
- Data limitations: In several cases, the ideal data we were seeking wasn’t available, because it either simply didn’t exist, or was difficult to access at the scales we needed. To really get a holistic understanding of the food system—one that measures needs and progress—we need more public, accessible, and transparent data.
Fighting for food systems that fare better
If we want a food system that we can all be proud of—one that is healthy and equitable for farmers, laborers, eaters, and the environment—we have a ways to go. Fortunately, however, our new analysis revealed a lot of bright spots worth building on.
With farm bill season in full force, there’s no better time to protect and build up the programs and investments that help make positive change possible. The draft House farm bill, which failed to pass last month, likely would have had a negative impact on food systems across the country due to its utter failure to invest in healthy food access. However, just last week, Senate leaders released their proposal for a bipartisan farm bill, which defends and even boosts many critical initiatives, such as those that support nutrition, regional economies, beginning farmers, and sustainable agriculture research. While it’s clear there’s a lot of work ahead, investments like these can give us confidence that we’re heading in the right direction—so raise your voice and urge your senators to pass a farm bill that brings us one step closer to a food system, from farm to fork, that we can be proud of.