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How far does your food travel? A study follows Minnesota beef

This Strip Club steak had the lowest ratio of food miles-per-pound. Do you know where it's from?

This Strip Club steak had the lowest ratio of food miles-per-pound. Do you know where it's from?

Is local always better? Not necessarily in terms of transportation fuel use, a recent USDA report determined. MPR looked into details of the report, recently produced by several economists and academics, including a few contributors from the U of M, and the distinction it makes between between the idea of total food miles and the amount of transportation fuel burned per pound of food.

The researchers wanted to understand issues related to scaling up local food access. The Minnesota component of the study compared the beef supply chains for Kowalski's on Grand Avenue in St. Paul, SunShineHarvest Farm (a Minneapolis farmers' markets vendor), and Thousand Hills Cattle Co., a regional purveyor that sells to supermarkets, restaurants, and institutions.

The study determined that Kowaksi's beef--originating in Montana, slaughtered in Kansas, then sent to its distribution center in St. Michael, Minnesota--traveled about 1,645 food miles from farm to market. Beef from SunShineHarvest, a farm near Northfield, which slaughters its cattle in New Prague, Minnesota, traveled about 75 food miles. But here's the crux:

But wait. SunShineHarvest is driving a pickup truck that carries three animals at a time. In the Kowalski supply chain, semi-trailers are hauling 40 to 55 cattle at a time and then 45,000 pounds of fresh meat.

The result, the study concludes, is that the direct sales chain uses 2.18 gallons of fuel to get 100 pounds of meat to market. The traditional mainstream supply chain uses less, an average of 1.92 gallons per 100 pounds of meat.

The researchers found that an intermediate-size, regional supply chain like that of Thousand Hills (buying from regional farmers, processing animals in Cannon Falls, and selling meat regionally), provided the lowest ratio of 0.69 gallons per 100 pounds of meat. The researchers were hesitant to draw larger conclusions without further study, but it's certainly something to consider next time you shop.