• A map of northeastern cities depicts their proposed “foodsheds,” the areas that naturally supply metropolitan areas with their food.

    A map of northeastern cities depicts their proposed “foodsheds,” the areas that naturally supply metropolitan areas with their food.

    Image: Urban Design Lab at the Earth Institute, Columbia University

    Full Screen

Good food nation

A map of northeastern cities depicts their proposed “foodsheds,” the areas that naturally supply metropolitan areas with their food.

MIT researchers think America's obesity epidemic can be reversed via ‘foodsheds,’ in which healthier, more affordable food is produced and consumed regionally.

In the last three decades, childhood obesity in the United States has become a massive public-health problem. According to the Centers for Disease Control, between 1980 and 2006 the percentage of obese teenagers in the United States grew from 5 to 18, while the percentage of pre-teens suffering from obesity increased from 7 to 17. Such children often become overweight adults, leaving themselves especially susceptible to heart illness, Type 2 diabetes, strokes, and some forms of cancer.

These weight problems do not simply stem from a lack of willpower, according to Dr. Tenley Albright, director of MIT’s Collaborative Initiatives program, which uses systems analysis to study broad social issues. Albright is a Harvard-educated surgeon who, two years ago, helped organize an interdisciplinary group of about 10 researchers, from MIT and Columbia University, specifically to analyze the causes of child obesity. Aided by a grant from the United Health Foundation, the team scoured medical and economic data, and consulted with medical researchers, economists and policy-makers, before releasing an initial October 2008 report.

The group’s conclusion: Obesity is widespread due to our national-scale system of food production and distribution, which surrounds children — especially lower-income children — with high-calorie products. “The problem lies not just in a child, but the whole environment around a child,” says Albright. “To end obesity, we need to produce healthier, more accessible, more affordable food.” As Albright notes, 90 percent of American food is processed — according to the United States Department of Agriculture — meaning it has been mixed with ingredients, often acting as preservatives, that can make food fattening.

Now, in another report finished this October after meetings with food-industry leaders, the MIT and Columbia researchers propose a solution: America should increase its regional food consumption. Each metropolitan area, the researchers say, should obtain most of its nutrition from its own “foodshed,” a term akin to “watershed” meaning the area that naturally supplies its kitchens. Moreover, in a novel suggestion, the MIT and Columbia team says these local efforts should form a larger “Integrated Regional Foodshed” system, intended to lower the price and caloric content of food by lowering distances food must travel, from the farm to the dinner table.

Welcome to the food terminal

Only 1 to 2 percent of all food consumed in the United States today is locally produced. But the MIT and Columbia team, which includes urban planners and architects, believes widespread adoption of some modest projects could change that, by increasing regional food production and distribution.

To help production, the group advocates widespread adoption of small-scale innovations such as “lawn to farm” conversions in urban and suburban areas, and the “10 x 10 project,” an effort to develop vegetable plots in schools and community centers. Lawns require more equipment, labor and fuel than industrial farming nationwide, yet produce no goods. But many vegetables, including lettuce, cucumbers and peppers, can be grown efficiently in small plots. “A lot of those projects could be started immediately,” says Michael Conard, assistant director of Columbia’s Urban Design Lab, who notes that during World War Two, small “victory gardens” produced more than 40 percent of America’s fruits and vegetables.

To better distribute local food, some cities, including Oakland, Calif., Philadelphia, and Newark, N.J., give grants and tax credits to help small markets sell fresh produce. But the architects and designers in the MIT/Columbia group suggest entrepreneurs or government should invest in a new concept: “food terminals,” retail developments combining grocery stores with greenhouses, farmers’ markets, restaurants, and even education centers as magnets for city residents who otherwise lack access to fresh produce.

“These would be multi-faceted places where people could buy food, learn about it, and get health information,” says Kenneth Kaplan, an architect and associate director of MIT’s Collaborative Initiatives project. “This is an urban planning challenge because the large supermarkets tend to sit out on the periphery of cities. In the areas where there is a deficit in healthy food, the infrastructure is simply not there.” Retailing could also occur through low-cost “mobile food markets”: buses retrofitted to sell produce.

Since not all regions grow the same produce, the researchers allow that many goods would still be shipped across regions. “We’re not saying people in New England shouldn’t eat pineapple,” says Eleanor Carlough, program director of the Collaborative Initiatives. “But the apples grown in New England should stay there, if possible.”

The proposal has received some favorable reactions so far. In an op-ed in The New York Times in September, food writer Michael Pollan hailed the MIT/Columbia project, and suggested the foodshed concept “could be the key to improving the American diet.”

Saving on health care

Building regional foodsheds, however, will be a long-term process. The crux of the problem is how to make food both cheap and healthy. As multiple economic studies show, the price of healthy food has risen more quickly than the price of unhealthy food in recent decades. And as a 2004 study from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found, $1 could buy 1,200 calories of potato chips and 875 calories of soda, but only 250 calories of vegetables and 170 calories of fresh fruit.

“Business certainly isn’t altruistic by nature, and you’re not going to create a change unless you can show how people can make money,” Carlough acknowledges.

Moreover, lifestyle changes have altered the way Americans eat. The USDA estimates that a family of four, with two kids between 6 and 11 years old, can maintain a healthy diet for roughly $700 to $1,050 per month, or $23 to $35 per day. That is based on market-bought food prepared at home, however. As the USDA also notes, money spent on food away from home increased about 17-fold in the United States from 1960 to 2005; among other things, people are consuming more high-fat “convenience” foods, as the MIT and Columbia researchers call them, which are more widely available in all kinds of stores than ever before.

However, the researchers claim, an increasingly regional system of making and selling healthy foods will lower the cost of those goods, by reducing things like transportation costs. A University of Iowa study shows that fruits and vegetables grown locally travel an average of 56 miles from farm to table, as opposed to an average of 1,494 miles for produce grown in other regions. In a new phase of their work, the researchers aim to examine these economic factors more closely.

Moreover, the researchers assert, society as a whole pays for our national-scale food economy in ways that go beyond the price of food. Another Iowa study suggests that food production incurs additional costs of $6 billion to $16 billion when factors such as energy use and health care are included.

As Albright sees it, the effort to produce healthier foods “fits right in with the health-care reform effort right now because chronic diseases are so costly for the nation.” America currently spends $14 billion annually treating childhood obesity, and $147 billion treating all forms of obesity. Pollan, for his part, contends in the same Times piece that expanding health-care coverage would lead insurers to realize they “have a powerful interest in reducing rates of obesity and chronic diseases linked to weight.”

The MIT researchers recognize it will take a long-term effort to change the way America eats. For now, they say, it is important to show that alternatives exist. “People haven’t focused on our food system yet because it’s big, it’s political, and it’s complex,” says Carlough. “But it is a critical issue that needs to be addressed.”


Topics: Economics, Environment, Food, Health, Urban studies and planning, Obesity


i agree the farmer will save america, but the issue is then we have to get farming affordable again and reclaim fallow fields. i for one would love to see more farms and less strip housing. we need to learn to live and love our land. all this corporate stuff is a waste of time. back to the basics.

Obesity can be solved if there were fast food chains that offered $1 or $2 items that were filling and completely healthy.

However, that is almost a catch 22 because to do so the food producers have to produce enough of that food to bring the cost down to allow for that price point. But for them to produce that much there has to be the supply first.

You can't eat out and have a healthy meal.

Eating out is a sure way to get fat in America. I was at a conference a few weeks ago with people from around the world and overheard several complain about how 'heavy' the food was in comparison to what they were used to.

Fast food restaurants are just particularly bad about providing unhealthy meals. Even something like salad is rendered fattening by the dressing they provide with it; you're better off eating a hamburger!

I'd love to be able to get filling meals that weren't fattening too.

One of the important things researchers need to focus on is not only *what* we eat, but why we feel as if we need to eat it. You can't assume that if you offer healthy options people will choose them, if they are already conditioned psychologically to feel as if "junk" food is comforting, for example. If they feel as if they need to be comforted and aren't able to comfort themselves in other ways, food is the easiest and most logical option - it's readily available, it's not illegal, and let's face it - everybody's gotta eat.

We are only going to be able to solve the obesity "epidemic" by approaching it from multiple directions. If you only try to solve it by making it harder to access unhealthy foods - people will find ways of getting that creamy fattening stuff they crave. (Seriously - are you going to outlaw white flour, sugar, butter, heavy cream from the grocery store?) Or they'll binge on the "healthy" stuff - something we've already seen happen with "fat-free" but high-processed-carb products.

Helping our nation deal with stress and anxiety would be a lot more useful. Working to get rid of the sources of that stress and anxiety (poverty, abusive corporate and other toxic organizational behavior, health care nightmares, etc.) would be even better.

I have a little to say.The problem is really problem.We should pay more attention.

We've built a yard sharing site to get more people growing at the neighborhood level. Wait lists on community garden plots are years long. Yard sharing (and produce tool and seed sharing) all help people get growing right away.

and that site is hyperlocavore.com if you would like to check us out. It's free!

FDA rules are such that MSG is only labeled MSG if it is 99% or more in content. That means that the over 75 different "blends" are touted on labels as being MSG free. MSG is an excito-toxin and a flavor enhancer, as well as, being known to promote obesity. In addition, it is used as a fertilizer on high water content fruits and vegetables such as strawberries, tomatoes, celery, etc.

As a result of the use of this poison in virtually ALL processed foods. The FDA is part of the problem in allowing such a thing in our foods, however, the Food Industry is just too powerful. They say, if you can imagine, that it is not "proven" that MSG is a cause of anything, however, they do acknowledge sensitivities. Well, I have kidney disease, 2 others in my family have celiac, fortunately, I'm smart enough to figure out how to feed my family. REAL FOOD is the key. BUT, it's a lot more work to cook everything from scratch, including ketchup, spaghetti sauce, chicken broth (without flavoring). Is it worth it? Yes, but, as one of the commenters states, it's getting people to eat that way.

For a list of names that MSG goes by, go to truthinlabeling.com. I can personally attest to the accuracy of the list as I have a canary in the food mines in my family that gets extremely sick with this ingredient.

In addition to poor food, please also address plastics as part of the problem and the case of irreversible obesity as a result of pthalates. Remember when our food came in waxed paper or glass containers? I long for those days!

I forgot to add, look at people who are otherwise thin but have a high amount of belly fat. That's part of the plastic/MSG affect aside from over-eating and lack of exercise.

Excellent idea! My diet consists of lean free range meats and as much local produce I can get my hands on. I believe in the notion that you are what you eat. I would much rather invest in my health (via nutrient dense food) than a mutual fund any day! People want a public healthcare option, this is it.

Too much research – not enough common sense.

1) People crave fats and will instinctively gravitate toward them. People need fat, calories are a good thing. We get too many because, for the time being, they’re cheap. This problem will solve itself as the US dollar and excessive standard of living continues to even out with that of the world.

2) This has been described as a “long term project/goal.” American’s don’t do “long-term.” We are reactionary and impulsive. If a leader, say President Carter, leads, American’s will bolt toward someone leading them to an “easier” alternative, like Reagan – oblivious to the repercussions.

3) The reason American’s eat prepared meals is lack of time and energy; it’s spent working. I know, I raise acres of organic fruit and attempt to live from my garden. I haven’t the time to tend the crops and prepare or preserve them. That’s a bygone era. And given a preference, my children will always go for a packaged product over (example last night) fresh baked winter squash. We’re not lazy; we work too hard for the wrong things.

Random thoughts: What will cause American’s to “eat regionally” is vastly increased fuel costs. Schools should plow under football fields and plant tree crops, fruiting vines and vegetables. A fulltime gardener should be allowed to live on site and credit should be given for student involved (including summer) care. Processing, preparation and preservation should be taught in grade, middle and high school for both genders. School meals should be augmented by this produce.

…likely in my dreams… Again, the lowering of our living standards will be the only thing that affects the changes you seek. It will not be done by desire. Mandates will be ridiculed, fought and funded by the usual corporate suspects. As with health care - find what’s working around the world and attempt to emulate it, or simply wait until we reach “their” standard of living. When a “Big Mac” reflects its true cost few in America will be able to afford it.

Macrobiotic diets have been around a long time. Eat local grown in season foods and whole foods brought in from where they are produced.

This problem won't solve itself, as one writer supposed. Our system of subsidies and price supports ensures "filler" ingredients like corn and all its aliases, soy and all its aliases, MSG and all its aliases, and sugar and all its aliases.

Those items "fill" most processed foods, keeping their costs artificially low--and their nutrition low, too. Unless we get the gov out of the subsidy business (that favors big ag and larger, centralized food corps), and begin realizing an ag system based on petro-chemicals isn't sustainable, we're toast.

A move towards localization and foodsheds, regulatory support (not limitations) for small farmers, massive education on how to grow where you lawn once was...I'm sure more strategies can arise from these comments.

I personally work to reduce the food that slips out of the food distribution system and ends in the landfill: all edible food should be shared with the hungry, and all the leftovers should be composted to return to local farms.

We all know enough of the causes of ill health due to poor nutrition to not need a bunch of researchers belaboring the obvious at public expense. Their only non-obvious good idea is the food terminal, and it seems a very good one. Viron’s ideas about converting school fields into cropland and teaching processing, preparation and preservation in the schools are excellent, and are being pursued at the PR level. This is essential because agribusiness and the fast food industry are conditioning children about what to eat and even what food is which is criminal.

The quick fix is to tax consumption of trans fats, sugar in various forms, and salt so that a) those who consume prodigious quantities will to some degree help offset the future costs of their increased health care, and b) nudge people into consuming less of these. This would be easier than trying to define “junk food” and then either tax or regulate it. Another quick fix is to ban food advertising from TV, just as tobacco and alcohol are. Policy must counteract the effects of social pressure and conditioning on the problem.

Buying coops and food banks could purchase grains by the rail car load and sell it for much less than the ripoff prices of grocery chains especially Whole Foods Marketing (emphasis on ‘marketing’). The economic efficiencies of bulk purchases together with the energy efficiency of rail shows that consuming only foods produced within the “food shed” is simplistic.

The relation between junk foods (and their junk constituents) and obesity is not the whole of the problem. Exercise is necessary for a healthy life. A study of a few years ago argued that kids during the 1930s had higher caloric intake than kids in the 1980s but that the latter did not burn them off.

As one of the coordinators of a community outdoor classroom in San Francisco, I'm finding it a challenge to get funding these days for programming. We had less trouble getting grants for building our gardens. It seems to me there is strength in numbers, and I would like to see urban gardening projects band together to figure out how we can keep ourselves going. Any suggestions?

The concept of a regional food shed and using this as a model to fight obesity and Type I diabetes is admirable. However, to bring this concept into practice, we need government programs and policies that encourage a re-structuring of our agricultural system from large industrial farms that focus on monocultures to small-scale diverse farms that contribute to a local food supply. We already have local county based agricultural groups with the USDA extension services, and in addition, food stamp programs are county based. With the appropiate government programs and oversight, we could restructure these programs to develop and oversee the establishment of local food sheds. Ultimately, the success of local food sheds and providing better food for our populace is based on the abundance and success of farmers that grow healthy, fresh foods. We need to recruit a new generation of farmers and provide incentives for land acquisition and providing foods for local communities. Some of the government subsidies that now go to commodity crop farmers should be diverted to support farmer who are committed to suppling their local food shed with fresh foods. The place to start with improving the health of our populace is to direct government support to farmers that are producing "real" food (vegtables, fruits, meats, dairy products) grown with methods that reduce environmental degradation.

I disagree with the conclusion in the above article that, "it will take a long term effort to change the way Americans eat". I believe that we can create rapid change by altering government organizations that are already in place and connecting these changes via outreach education and programs to the general public in each food shed. In addition, we should consider programs that recruit young farmers from cohorts that have an education and interest in the biological and environmental sciences. This knowledge and interest base is likely to be appropriate for food shed farmers.

Back to the top