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Eating locally: There may be plenty of food but also significant challenges

Eating local has become a growing phenomena, even meriting rigorous study. Recently, the American Farmland Trust (AFT) evaluated San Francisco, California, to determine the viability of such a major city sustaining itself with the availability of local food. The study revealed both challenges and opportunities. Read on for more details.

Busy Farmer's Market

Can San Francisco feed itself with local food?

According to the American Farmland Trust, it’s a definite possibility.

“No place in the United States, and perhaps in the world is as blessed as San Francisco by an amazing cornucopia of products grown nearby,” says Ed Thompson, California director and senior associate of American Farmland Trust (AFT).

“But, the answer to the question is a qualified yes because there are challenges to increase both the production, marketing and consumption of local food.”

A study conducted by the AFT shows that the area farmlands have plenty of food but that protecting that farmland as well as marketing locally grown food are major challenges.

Thompson co-authored the study with Alethea Harper from Sustainable Agriculture Education (SAGE) and Sibella Krauss, President of SAGE and Director of the Agriculture in Metropolitan Regions Program, University of California, Berkeley. Here is what they found.

Where does all the food come from?

San Franciscans consume 935,000 tons of food each year, and 5.9 million tons in the Bay area as a whole, while the “foodshed” (agricultural operations within 100 miles of the Golden Gate Bridge as defined in the study) produces 20 million tons of food annually.

In all, more than 80 different commodities are represented, with only a few not produced in abundance to satisfy the hunger of the City and Bay area residents.

The study also found that food products sold directly to consumers, for example, at farmers markets, are a small fraction, 0.5 percent of total regional production. However, this sector of the food system is expanding rapidly, with production of food for sale directly to consumers up nine percent a year from 1997 to 2002 in the San Francisco foodshed study area.

Impossible to track food because consumers don’t demand to know its origin

“It’s impossible to determine precisely how much locally-grown food is consumed in the city of San Francisco, or in fact, how much of what is consumed is produced on local farms and ranches,” adds Thompson.

“The commercial food system in the region, as throughout the United States, does not track the origin of what it sells, primarily because consumers do not yet demand to know the origin of the foods they eat.”

Urban sprawl a threat to farmland

Most of what is produced in the San Francisco foodshed is grown in the Central and Salinas Valleys. Three-quarters of the value of agricultural production in this area comes from less than one-fifth of the land that is irrigated cropland, the land that is under the most pressure from urban development.

“Without local farmland, there can be no local food,” says Thompson. “New development in this region is consuming an acre of farmland for every 9.7 residents — the epitome of urban sprawl. If we continue at this rate, we’ll lose another 800,000 acres by 2050, and much of that will be an unnecessary waste because of how inefficiently we are paving over the best land on earth.”

More challenges to locally grown food movement

The loss of farmland is one of several significant obstacles that must be addressed to increase both the production, marketing and local consumption of locally-grown food. But there are others, such as:

  • Encouraging the traceability of the origin of locally-grown food
  • Educating consumers about eating foods in-season
  • Providing capital, expertise and infrastructure to enable growers to transition to producing foods for local markets
  • Assuring access to healthy, local food for low-income consumers

Local food movement also offers opportunities

“Despite the challenges, there are great opportunities to increase eating locally in San Francisco and the Bay Area,” says Thompson.

“The local foods movement has momentum in this region. Public and private institutions are starting to source food locally. And as the fossil fuel era wanes, local food may gain in advantage in the marketplace over food that is processed and shipped long distances.”

“No pun intended, we hope this report offers food for thought for San Francisco’s consumers, area producers and other cities across the country,” concludes Thompson.

For more information, visit to read the full study Think Globally-Eat Locally: San Francisco Foodshed Assessment.

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