This story is a part of a series about local food systems.

The roomful of environmental-science students at Fresno State didn’t exactly seem proud of their town. There were dismissive titters when political science professor Mark Somma suggested that Fresno, Calif., could be a place that drew people from around the world, seeking a higher quality of life.

The laughter didn’t slow Somma. Think of Fresno’s resources, he told them. It’s surrounded by some of the richest farmland in the world. It has a tremendous cultural diversity. It has views of the Sierra Nevada, and a river of Sierra snowmelt running along its northern border. And yet Fresno frequently pops up on lists of the worst cities. Every year it sprawls farther into the farmland, creating mile after repeating mile of identical strip malls and stoplights.