The Santa Barbara Syndrome: Why Don’t Residents of One of The Nation’s Biggest and Balmiest Agricultural Counties Buy Locally Grown Produce?

California Vineyard

Should you ever want to see firsthand how completely dysfunctional our modern food system is, I urge you to hop a flight to Santa Barbara, Calif.

That’s just what I did late last month to attend the annual Edible Institute, a conference organized by Edible Communities, the umbrella company above several dozen magazines that celebrate local food.

If ever there was a group of Americans that should be able to eat locally with neither effort nor sacrifice, it’s the 425,000 residents of Santa Barbara County, about 90 miles north of Los Angeles. Santa Barbara County grows commercial quantities of more than 50 vegetables, everything from artichokes to zucchini. Apples, peaches, oranges, lemons, and melons are among the more than 25 varieties of fruits raised there. There’s beef, pork, and chicken. All of which can be washed down with a terrific bottle of local pinot or chardonnay.

Given this abundance and a year-round mild climate, it didn’t surprise me to learn from David Cleveland, a professor at the University of California Santa Barbara who gave a presentation at the institute, that Santa Barbara ranks among the top 1 percent of American counties for agricultural production, with annual sales of $1.2 billion. Nor did it surprise me that 99 percent of what is grown in Santa Barbara is exported: a box of Santa Barbara mandarins currently sits on the counter of my Vermont kitchen.

But then Cleveland dropped a statistical bombshell: In this land of plenty, overflowing with all manner of great local food, fully 95 percent of the fruits and vegetables consumed in the county are shipped in from elsewhere. “Picture two produce-laden tractor-trailers passing on the highway,” he said. “One bringing food into the county; the other hauling it out.”

This illogical and wasteful system is in part responsible for a couple of other counter-intuitive statistics that Cleveland presented. Nearly 40 percent of households in the county are “food insecure,” meaning that people have trouble affording food. Even with all those healthful fresh fruits and vegetables growing beside its roads, Santa Barbara’s obesity rate is in the top 20 percent of California counties. About 8 percent of children there are overweight and 53 percent of adults.

I in no way mean to cast aspersions on Santa Barbara County. My hunch is that its consumption of local foods is no better or worse than most counties in the United States. (Interestingly, climate-challenged Vermonters buy about the same amount of their food from local sources as do residents of Santa Barbara County.) The take home message is that our food system is broken. We should all be taking steps to fix it.

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  1. Lael says:

    Possible explanations:
    Major Ag zones in SB County are at the north and south borders, making them perfect spots to export to neighboring counties.
    Major supermarkets don’t care where they get their produce, unlike smaller local markets and places like Whole Foods.
    I wouldn’t be surprised if this practice of huge exports and imports aren’t duplicated throughout California, and that it’s not just a Santa Barbara County thing.

  2. Barry says:

    Lael. I agree totally, especially the part about supermarkets. To that I would add large institutional food buyers–hospitals, schools, colleges . . .

  3. Vicki says:

    It could be that the wine production in Santa Barbara County skews the numbers — wine is relatively expensive so could account for a relatively large percentage of the county’s agricultural production in terms of dollar value. The wine is also likely to be exported outside the county.

    They do grow nice produce in SB — I spent some time in Santa Ynez in the fall of 2008 and found a small apple farm where I bought a different variety of apple each week depending on what had been ready for picking that week. Wonderful to buy directly from the farmer at the end of his driveway.

    Re: institutional buyers — some schools and colleges are making efforts to buy local, many colleges have sustainability managers who are working to move this forward, especially in California.

  4. Julie says:

    This is so true. I have worked at the S.B. farmers market (great one BTW). For years at Earthtrine stand. I started at Fairview Gardens doing the harvest, pricing, distribution of produce at farmers markets and wholesale. I also worked close with the CSA coordinator, deciding weekly shares. I found that ever with these outlets, I would have really hard time finding distribution for occasional large crops such as 20 crates of Cucumbers that happens overnight, giving best condition.

    Local Harvest Delivery was establish in 2009 as a delivery service for the SB residents to receive weekly delivery of whats in BOUNTY from their local farms. By organizing this, instead of the farmers, it creates a collaboration of trust between our farms and residents. Farmer can focus on growing crops and we take care of all the details of distribution. We also educate and try to change eating habits into healthy ones. Supporting our local food is prime into healing our environments. No-Chemicals ever. Yes their is plenty of proud farmers that work toward a sustainable future.

    I love this article. Keep up the great work. My business partner and I are developing a project for a smart distribution system in Santa Barbara this will act as a distribution/hub. We can maximize our local resources. I know so many great farmers in this region! We love collaboration and working for our community. Please contact me if you have information that could help start this project!

    Re: re: institutional buyers — Their is Farmer Direct Produce that distribute our bounty to Schools and Institutions such as UCSB and Cottage Hospital. Also a project called S’cool food. Very cool indeed!

    EDUCATION?! I also work as a team member for a local food festival. Last Oct the First SOL Food Festival was a real success! Come to SB and see what the community is doing to change. OCT 2011

    Hope someone likes this information! Took me a while to write;)

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