Posted June 20, 2018
Last week, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released a new 50-State Food System Scorecard, which ranks U.S. states based on farm and food health, sustainability and equity. The scorecard highlights areas of success and potential improvement for states – and it can help food system stakeholders identify other states that are doing well in areas where they may lag behind. New England is a standout leader, claiming six of the top 10 overall scores. Farm to institution activities also got a nod; in calculating a state’s final score, farm to school grant funding, sustainable food systems research and institutions, and the number of food policy councils all contributed.
As Marcia DeLonge, a UCS food and environment senior scientist, explains in their blog post, there were multiple motivations behind creating the scorecard. One was a desire to address the many challenges that continue to plague our food system. Equally important was the opportunity to showcase innovative solutions to issues like climate change, food insecurity, and land access for beginning farmers. In line with UCS’s mission to use science to inform practical solutions to social and environmental problems, the interactive scorecard platform shares local, regional, and federal food policy recommendations.
New England: Successes and Opportunities
According to the Food System Scorecard rankings, New England is a regional leader in healthy and sustainable food systems. After categories were averaged to an aggregate score, all six New England states ranked in the top 10. Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts took the first four spots, respectively.
Figure 1. Average score across 10 food system categories. Source: Union of Concerned Scientists. 50-State Food Systems Scorecard. Map 11: Average of all categories.
In every category, New England has at least one state in the top five. The region fared particularly well in regard to sustainable farming practices; all New England states were among the 14 highest ranked in the conservation practices and farm investment categories, including the number one slot for Vermont and Rhode Island, respectively.
Other categories showed more variation. For example, while Vermont was ranked first for food infrastructure, New Hampshire was 34th for the same category. In contrast, New Hampshire ranked second for reduced ecosystem impacts, and Vermont was 24th. This variation represents diversity within our region and the unique challenges that each state faces. However, it also presents a huge opportunity for New England states to learn from each other and implement strategies that have worked for their neighbors. Continued regional collaboration is a key component in moving towards improved food system sustainability.
In farm to institution-related categories, a few New England states stood out. For the food investments category, a higher amount of farm to school grant funding per 100 students increased a state’s score. From fiscal years 2013 to 2017, New England states received a total of $2.6 million in USDA Farm to School grants. These funds provide schools with the resources needed to increase local food purchasing and implement agriculture-based curriculum. In the food investments category, Vermont ranked second, followed immediately by Rhode Island, Maine, and Massachusetts.
The food infrastructure category similarly highlighted the importance of institutions and regional food systems by including the number of food policy councils and networks per one million residents. Across New England, there are 29 such organizations (according to The Food Policy Networks project from the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future), many of which partner with FINE. These councils impact policies that directly influence issues ranging from local food procurement to food processing and food waste reduction. UCS’s scorecard ranks Vermont first and Maine second in the food infrastructure category.
Photo courtesy of Vermont Food Venture Center
Farm to Institution and a Healthy Food System
At FINE, we work to mobilize institutions to transform the region’s food system. Our research shows that New England schools, hospitals, and institutions of higher education spend hundreds of millions of dollars on food each year. By purchasing from local producers and increasing engagement and awareness of the importance of local food, institutions can help New England move toward a more self-reliant and equitable food system. The essential role of institutions in promoting sustainable food systems is reflected in the scorecard indicators, and we hope that other farm to institution indicators, such as the percentage of local food purchased by institutions, will be considered in future iterations of the scorecard.
Future research, including efforts undertaken by FINE, will contribute to greater understanding of the role of institutions in creating sustainable, healthy, and equitable food systems. FINE is currently busy collecting responses to our 2018 New England Campus Dining Survey. The survey asks questions about the amount, type, and source of local food served at colleges and universities throughout New England. The results of our 2015 survey have been critical in helping us better understand the institutions we are trying to support. By comparing the results of the 2018 survey to 2015 baseline data, we will be able to measure changes in campus local food activities over time and identify strategies for expanding local food procurement. At FINE, we also use data from Health Care Without Harm’s Healthy Food in Health Care survey and the USDA Farm to School Census, which will be reimplemented early next year.
Nationwide, efforts to quantify the role of institutions in the food system are also underway. Along with partners across the U.S., FINE coordinates the National Farm to Institution Metrics Collaborative. Across the country, members of the collaborative are working to measure the impact of farm to institution. Through quarterly calls, the collaborative discusses key farm to institution metrics and shares best practices, resources, and tools for collecting critical data.
All of these efforts are filling the gap of research that exists around farm to institution activities and making the case that institutions are significant players in the food system landscape. As states consider approaches to improve their food systems – and maybe even earn a higher spot on the scorecard – engaging institutions and developing supportive farm to institution policies is an essential component.
Photo courtesy of Henry P. Kendall Foundation, taken at Colby Sawyer College in New Hampshire
Digging In: Developing Scorecard Indicators & Categories
The food system is large and complex, encompassing everything from farm conservation to labor rights to healthy food access. In order to capture a range of components, researchers gleaned publicly available data for 68 different indicators. Indicators were then grouped into ten categories: farming outlook, food produced, reduced resource reliance, reduced ecosystem impacts, conservation practices, farm investments, food infrastructure, diet and health outcomes, food investments, and social determinants.
States received a score for each of the ten categories and an overall average. All ten categories were equally weighted in determining the final score (check out UCS’s methods for a comprehensive summary). Through the scorecard platform, users can dig into category scores for each state and view national maps representing scores from every category. Category scores are based on five to nine individual indicators, including the following:
Farming Outlook is all about the future of farming. Among other indicators, it looks at average farmer age, the percentage of minority and women farmers, and farm size.
Food Produced captures a state’s contribution to a nutritious food supply. It uses indicators like percent of cropland in fruit and vegetable production and how much crop production goes into animal feed and fuel.
Reduced Resource Reliance examines on-farm use of commercial fertilizer, pesticides, water, and fuel.
Reduced Ecosystem Impacts looks at on-farm emissions of greenhouse gases, soil erosion, and nutrient (nitrogen and phosphorus) loss.
Conservation Practices includes the percentage of acres that are managed with low or no-tillage, organic acres, and use of cover crops and rotational grazing.
Farm Investments is specifically about investment in on-farm sustainable agricultural practices and research. It includes factors such as investment in USDA Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). It also includes sustainable food systems programs and institutions.
Food Infrastructure covers a state’s concentration of farmers markets, food hubs, and food policy councils.
Diet & Health Outcomes is based on the prevalence of food insecurity and diet-related health status indicators such as obesity and type two diabetes rate.
Food Investments concerns the affordability and accessibility of healthy food. It includes the amount of grant money dedicated to local food and farmers’ market promotion, supporting farm to school programs, and coordinating other community-based food projects.
Social Determinants looks at factors that create and are impacted by inequity in the food system including; income inequality, gender equality, and the portion of the labor force with union membership.