Can Western Washington Feed Itself?

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Pike Place Market Express at City Hall Plaza

The weekly Pike Place Market Express provides access to locally grown food right here at City Hall. (City Council Photo)

The Local Food Action Initiative (LFAI) is designed to increase gardening and farming in the City, encourage farmers markets and other connections to local producers, and emphasize food as an important part of our economy.  We know that eating more locally can reduce the cost of transport, provide access to food that is healthier and produced in a less resource intensive way, support regional farmers and farmland and keep money circulating in the local economy.  We also know that we can’t grow all of our food within the region — products like bananas and coffee will always have to be imported from farther away.

How much of the food we consume can we actually supply within our region (within our local ‘foodshed’)?  What is a reasonable definition of our foodshed, and will it always supply only a small part of our consumption, or can we actually come closer to balancing local consumption and production, at least for those products that can be grown given our local ecological constraints?

A group of University of Washington graduate students, under the direction of Kara Martin of Urban Foodlink and Professor Brandon Born, has released a “Western Washington Foodshed Study” commissioned by the American Farmland Trust, that seeks to answer these questions.  They defined our foodshed as the 19 Washington counties west of the Cascades, an area that includes both urban and rural patterns of settlement, that has a common ecological pattern, and within which local products can be transported relatively easily.

Using data from the USDA’s Economic Research Service, the study estimates that the 5.2 million inhabitants of Western Washington consume almost 6 billion pounds of food annually (that breaks down to about 3 pounds per person, per day).  A lot of food gets wasted within our food system, though, so much more food – about 8.6 billion pounds – needs to be produced in order for those 6 billion pounds to make it to our forks.  Of the top 20 items we consume, 15 can be grown in our ecosystem.  And there are numerous other items that we should be eating more of (like leafy green vegetables) that are not in the top 20 but can easily be produced here.  Relocalizing our diets could improve our health as well as our local economy.

Production of food in Western Washington totals almost 4 billion pounds, about 43% of the food we need to sustain our current diets. That is actually a pretty substantial production base, but the percentage of specific food items consumed versus produced locally varies widely.  Our foodshed produces about 1.5 times as much dairy products as we consume, but only about half of the vegetables we eat and 10% of the fruits and protein products we consume.  Of course, drilling down to specific products reveals an even more complex picture, with some food items produced in surplus and exported, and others largely imported.  Adjusting for food exports, our 17,000 farms produce about 25% of the food that we consume in Western Washington.

How could we increase this amount and encourage a more healthy diet?  The recommendations are clear:

  • Protect the farmland that is currently in production, and bring land currently underutilized into production. Some of the region’s best historic farmland is still being lost to development, but much of it is still undeveloped, and could be brought back into agriculture.  A targeted strategy to protect prime land will be critical to our food future.
  • Increase food yields on currently active farmland. By using simple technologies like hoop houses, adopting improved farming practices and converting some land currently used for non-food items to edible crop production, we could produce significantly more food than we do now on the farms we already have.
  • Cut down on food waste at all stages of the food production chain. As it stands, about 40% of the food that’s produced never makes it to our plates. Innovations in packaging, improved inventory management technologies and consumer education campaigns could go a long way to making our food system more efficient.
  • Shift to healthier diets, in line with USDA guidelines. On average, we currently eat almost 40% more than we should; cutting back even moderately would make it easier to meet our own food needs within the region. The USDA also recommends that we up our consumption of vegetables and dairy, which we produce readily in Western Washington, and reduce our consumption of protein, sugar and grains, which we don’t produce so much of.
  • Continue to encourage and facilitate infrastructure that makes it possible for local farmers to process and store food and connect with local markets. We can also consider the opportunities to produce food that has local markets but is served by imports. For example, we currently produce only 6% of the leafy greens that we consume, yet we can grow them practically year-round. Identifying similar market opportunities and developing a farm to market strategy could make a huge difference in matching local consumption with production.

Forget about the oranges, bananas, and coffee – that is not the issue.  Let’s focus on what we’re able to grow here, and on what we can do to ensure that our considerable agricultural assets translate into a robust local food system.

This study demonstrates that we do produce a significant amount of the food we consume, and that we can do much more with the right kind of local food strategy.  We can eat a healthier diet, protect our environment, and keep our dollars in the local economy while supporting our farmers, restaurants, and food-related businesses.  If we really want to eat locally, we have to take practical steps to make doing so possible. A coordinated regional food strategy would produce multiple benefits for all of us.  We can do many great things within the City, but this regional work is essential to truly realizing the vision of the Local Food Action Initiative.