March 4, 2008 — Most college students would define the phrase "food miles" as the distance between the local pizza delivery joint and the door of their dorm room. To University of Virginia Engineering School student Lauren Doucette, who is writing her senior thesis on energy dynamics at the Charlottesville City Market, it means much more.
"The term 'food miles' describes how far a food has traveled before it is consumed," she explained. "The average grocery store carrot has traveled 1,600 miles before it is eaten."
With the world's constantly growing population, industrial agriculture — a farming method in which crops and livestock are produced on a large scale — is the norm. The food is processed, packaged and shipped to grocery stores en masse before the products land in our refrigerators. What most of us never think about, however, is the substantial amount of energy that is used to transport these foods — most of which comes from nonrenewable and environmentally harmful fossil fuels.
Locally grown foods may be part of the solution. Because local food accrues far fewer food miles, less fuel is used in distribution. That does not mean that the farmer's markets don't consume energy, though. "Although local produce is not being delivered by plane and large trucks to the farmers' markets, many food miles are created by travel of customers and vendors," Doucette said.
Doucette's project plans to gain a clearer picture of the relative energy costs. She is calculating two sources of energy as it relates to the Charlottesville City Market: energy used in transportation by the 90 participating vendors, and energy used by technologies (appliances, for example) to operate the market. She is determining how many miles each vendor travels and converting gallons into energy units; she is also measuring appliance energy usage as a function of wattage and duration of use.
What she found is surprising. "Through my energy calculations, I found that the amount of energy it takes to transport goods to and from the Charlottesville City Market for one day is about 13,000 kilowatt-hours. This is about how much energy the average household uses in one year."
Benjamin Cohen, assistant professor in the Department of Science, Technology, and Society and Doucette's technical thesis advisor, pointed to this finding in illustrating the importance of Doucette's project. "People rightly argue that shopping locally is a responsible thing to do — fresher food, better taste, more trust in the producers — but in recent sustainable agriculture debates, some have wondered if the energy benefits were valid, too. Consumers and policymakers only have a limited amount of information about that," he said. "I hope Lauren's project will inspire discussion about the convergence of alternative energy and alternative agriculture. I also hope it allows the Charlottesville community to provide an example that addresses the energy issue so that the other values of local food can remain viable."
Doucette hopes her research will contribute to community discussions among Charlottesville's Department of Parks and Recreation, the Charlottesville Community Design Center and the University's urban planning department about the Charlottesville City Market. "In rethinking the concept of the market," she said, "city officials could potentially reorganize or redesign it so that it is more energy-efficient."
In her research Doucette suggests that a different location, a market that is open for longer hours and on more days, and a vendor carpool system as a few of the ways the market could reduce energy expenditures.
"Lauren's work will lead to further local energy research that takes into account other energy expenditures — like the energy it takes to grow local food and for market patrons to travel to buy it," says Cohen. "Her research is a great example of how U.Va. Engineering School students are committed to helping the Charlottesville community and how the Charlottesville community is offering ways to rethink more sustainable agricultural systems."