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Why 'food miles' matter and how to reduce your carbon footprint while shopping

Chad’s Produce sells fruit at the Wheeler Historic Farm farmers market in Murray on Sunday, July 25.

Chad’s Produce sells fruit at the Wheeler Historic Farm farmers market in Murray on Sunday, July 25. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)



SALT LAKE CITY — The COVID-19 pandemic that severely interrupted supply chains across the United States and in Utah continues to impact supplies of some items, amplifying the importance of "food security" and locally sourced products.

That distance it takes for your food to get to your pantry is called a "food mile," and as the global community aims to tamp emissions and reduce its carbon footprint, there are ways consumers can make an impact, if they do a little research.

Sustainable America notes that just as people leave a carbon footprint when they travel, food milage racks up given its entanglement with the transportation industry — sushi flown in from Japan, California apples consumed in New York and Costa Rica pineapples sitting on a countertop in Hawaii.

The organization emphasizes the way to shave those miles is to concentrate on purchasing locally sourced food and nonprocessed, whole foods.

Produce for sale at the Wheeler Historic Farm farmers
market in Murray on Sunday, July 25, 2021.
Produce for sale at the Wheeler Historic Farm farmers market in Murray on Sunday, July 25, 2021. (Photo: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

But it is a challenge.

In 2019, Utah food manufacturing sales totaled $8.3 billion, but more than $5.3 billion of those products went out of state, and then Utah consumers bought some of it back, according to data being used by the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food as it looks to develop a comprehensive, strategic plan.

"A lot of our beef and lamb goes out of state and then we buy it back at a higher price," said Linda Gillmor, director of marketing and economic development for the agency.

"Someone else is making that additional $5 billion we are talking about."

Fry sauce and barley

As an example, Gillmor pointed to fry sauce. Utah loves its fry sauce, but none of it is produced in state because there are not any processing facilities for tomatoes.

In sauces alone, Gillmor said, the state is potentially losing out on nearly $46 million because those products are generally made elsewhere — 65% of sauces in Utah were imported in 2019.

While some Utah breweries purchase locally grown barley, the state is losing $289 million in that sector and another $124 million due to baked goods being produced out of state and then shipped back. In the sector of dry pasta, dough and flour mixes, the losses are estimated at $56 million a year.

"The potential loss just blows you away," she said. "This should get the attention of anyone who cares about Utah's economy and especially the rural economy where the food is produced."

All those goods leaving the state — only to possibly end up on a shelf in a Utah grocery store — contribute to food miles.


When the products are from Utah, being shipped in Utah, it is much different than being flown in from somewhere else. Every one of those stops have a carbon footprint.

–Joshua Palmer


Gillmor blames, in part, the "basket of goods" economic philosophy.

"Our economists for decades have been talking about the basket of goods. The cheaper the basket of goods, the better it is for the consumer," she said. "But they are not looking at the importance of preserving open space, they are not looking at the carbon footprint and they are not looking at food security."

But Gillmor said she believes Utah residents want to purchase home-grown food products, they just need to know how.

"Being self-sufficient is part of our cultural heritage."

She pointed to the growing popularity of farmers markets, which have taken on renewed importance in light of the pandemic.

There are at least 36 farmers markets across Utah that offer locally grown produce, meat and other products.

"The pandemic has been a gift as far as education and opening our eyes to our food supply and how important it is to all of us and and how important our local food system is," Gillmor said.

"There has been a renaissance since the pandemic regarding the Utah's Own program. The number of producers coming to us has increased, the website visitations have increased and people are just waking up the importance of local food."

Buying local

The Utah's Own program connects Utah producers to Utah consumers, keeping more locally produced goods in the state and reducing the miles those products have to travel.

Utah is also one of only five states in the country that lacks a "food hub," but that is about to change with applications for grants that are available through the state.

Food hubs not only shorten the food supply chain and but can help tackle the amount of food that ends up in landfills that contribute to even more emissions.

Under the food hub model, a group of five to six farms can pool their resources to "aggregate" the production and harvesting of food. Gillmor said one example is to take fruit and vegetables that are not "pretty" enough to be sold in stores, clean them up, cook them or flash freeze for delivery to schools or hospitals.

"It can reduce food waste significantly and you are using local food for the local market."

In another example of connecting Utah food with Utah consumers, Farmers Feeding Utah debuted last year after the pandemic struck. Launched by the Utah Farm Bureau, the program connects "food insecure" consumers with local producers who were faced with dumping milk, letting produce go to waste or selling off livestock due to the supply chain disruptions.

Through the Miracle of Agriculture Foundation created by local ranchers and farmers, more than 1.5 million pounds of food were distributed to more than 35,000 hungry Utah individuals and their families.

Keeping Utah food in Utah

In July, Farmers Feeding Utah launched a subscription service featuring only Utah products that can be delivered to consumers' doorsteps.

The program will deliver new products each month, with the July offering including ribeye steaks, ground beef, tart cherries, cheese curds and more.

"We knew if Utahns would just taste local, they'd fall in love with it, so we decided to create an online farmers market to deliver Utah-grown food right to their doors," said Ron GIbson, president of the Utah Farm Bureau.

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The program supports Utah ranchers and farmers by paying them above the wholesale rate.

"One of our missions is for farmers to thrive, not just survive," said Joshua Palmer, CEO of Cogburn Wire Co. and GovFriend Inc., which developed the software for the program and coordinates the orders and deliveries.

"I think it is a good thing to know you are supporting your neighbor."

For every subscription, Palmer's company and Farmers Feeding Utah will pledge a donation to the program to help underserved residents who are food insecure.

"I think there are so many benefits to this. When a semitruck is going across country to deliver food some place, there are emissions going along with it," he said. "When the products are from Utah, being shipped in Utah, it is much different than being flown in from somewhere else. Every one of those stops have a carbon footprint."

So far, more than a 1,000 households have signed up for the "Touch of Utah," subscription service, from Logan to St. George.

Each monthly box contains unique products, and subscribers also have access to an online market to have their favorite products delivered in a separate shipment.

Palmer said subscriber rates doubled in just a few days.

"What it shows is that one, Utahns don't want to see farms go away, and two, Utahns support their neighbors and it is really inspiring to see that," he said. "We are humbled by the support we have seen."

Each box costs $99.99.

"We know that $99.99 a month is a heavy lift for some people, but we did everything we could to make this be something reasonable."

Palmer said he believes the quality of the food will win over people's taste buds and wallets.

"There is nothing that goes out in these boxes that I have not tasted. There is a quality standard. It has to be a Utah producer and that producer has to deliver quality. And it is on us to deliver that kind of quality so people don't want to cancel."

Palmer, who helped establish Farmers Feeding Utah, said subscriber support will help keep Utah ranchers and farmers in business, help the "food insecure," and help to preserve open space.

"I think being able to tell our kids and grandkids that we are going to go visit a farm is a really important thing and we think this can help."

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Amy Joi O'Donoghue

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