Eric Galatas – LYONS, Neb.    Nebraskans spend $4.4 billion on food annually, but only 10 percent of that money is spent on food grown in the state, according to a new report from the Center for Rural Affairs and the Nebraska Food Council.

Researchers tapped state and national data to create a comprehensive picture of the state’s food system, identifying strengths and opportunities for improvement.

“We’re importing 90 percent of food from other states that we could be producing ourselves and keeping those food dollars at home,” said report co-author Sandra Renner, a food-systems project associate for the Center for Rural Affairs.

Nebraska ranks first nationally in beef and veal exports, but Renner said frequently those items aren’t available at local grocery stores. She added that most of the state’s grain production goes to biofuels and feeding livestock, not people. The report also found that just 1,300 Nebraska farms sell directly to consumers, with sales of $6 million, or less than half of 1 percent of the state’s overall farm sales.

Renner said relying on food grown outside Nebraska limits access points for Nebraska’s most vulnerable residents who live in so-called food deserts, especially in rural areas where residents have to travel long distances for fresh fruits and vegetables. She said identifying food-system gaps can help create opportunities for new farmers, community gardens and farm-to-school programs.

“We know that when people have better access to fresh local healthy foods, it not only improves the economic health of a community but it also improves the physical health.”

Renner said a pilot project in partnership with the Nebraska Department of Education shows what’s possible when even small commitments are made to buy from local producers. During the 2017-2018 school year, Nebraska Farm to School’s “Nebraska Thursdays” reported $2.7 million in total local food purchases, where students were served home-grown melons, a variety of fresh vegetables, chicken and milk.

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