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Rethinking Our Food System to Combat Obesity

Photo credit: Malingering

With one-third of adults and 17 percent of children considered obese, the U.S. obesity epidemic continues to worsen. In 2007, the Earth Institute’s Urban Design Lab and MIT Collaborative Initiatives joined forces to investigate the issue through the prism of design and examine obesity’s multiple moving parts. There are no simple solutions, but their research concluded that “no single effort to curb childhood obesity will be sustainable or effective on a broad scale if the larger food system is not addressed.”

Many people in the United States who suffer from obesity, and consequent cardiovascular diseases and diabetes, live in areas with little access to supermarkets and stores that sell healthy foods. These “food deserts” tend to be in urban and rural low-income neighborhoods and in agricultural regions where commodity crops such as corn, wheat and soybeans are grown. This lack of access to affordable healthy food is a key contributor to obesity.

Before World War II, our food system—the production, processing, transportation and retail infrastructure—was largely localized. Now, however, we get much of our food through a mechanized, centralized and globalized system that emphasizes quantity over quality. The current food system has managed to produce enormous amounts of food over several generations, and provide us with variety and convenience.

Many people do not have access to farmers’ markets. Photo credit: Natalie Maynor

But today it is often easier and cheaper to send food around the world to be processed and distributed than to sell fresh local produce, partly because there is no well developed regional transportation infrastructure for locally grown fresh produce. The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture found that the average fresh food item travels 1,500 miles from the farm to our plates. For example, although New York is a major producer of apples, it still imports apples from Washington and apple juice from China—a practice that is unsustainable and undercuts regional farmers.

Our food system has also inadvertently contributed to the obesity epidemic by making processed food ubiquitous and cheaper than healthy food. Because the processing of food is mechanized, labor costs are lower, and since processed foods don’t spoil, refrigeration and transport costs are reduced, and they can be sold almost anywhere. Commodity crops used in processed foods are subsidized, and processed foods, though less nutritious, are considered “value-added,” so retailers can charge more for them.

Healthy food, on the other hand, is usually grown on small farms that must employ more labor; its perishability results in higher transport, refrigeration and storage costs; and since fresh produce is not standardized, each transaction in the food system process requires more time and attention.

Solving the obesity crisis will depend on making healthy foods more affordable, maximizing access, and ensuring its quality by restructuring the food system, according to the Urban Design Lab and MIT.

Spoke and hub configurations for a nationally integrated regional food system. Photo credit: Urban Design Lab

Their conclusion: a nationally integrated regional food system, consisting of regional “foodsheds” with “spoke and hub” distribution configurations, is the best way to accomplish this. A regional foodshed is an area where a significant percentage of the food for the area is produced within that region, much as a watershed is a region whose waters all drain into a particular body of water or river. Such a system would support regional farmers and help them more easily sell their food in cities by linking the food production, processing, transportation and retail infrastructure.

The Urban Design Lab, in collaboration with the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, took the model for the nationally integrated food system and applied it to New York. Their New York Regional Foodshed Project is studying the local food production capacity of the New York City metropolitan area with an aim to develop policy recommendations that enable more food from regional producers to be brought to all New York neighborhoods. (New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn has used those recommendations to shape proposed legislation to help develop such urban-rural links.) The study analyzed local land use, soil types, transportation infrastructure and climate, and compared existing production capacity with untapped opportunities for food production and distribution. Recent research shows that there is a yearly demand for more than $866 million of locally grown foods in the city that is not being met.

So how can the urban population that wants this regionally produced food be linked with the suppliers of the food?

Today, most of New York City’s produce comes into the city through one venue: Hunts Point in the Bronx, one of the world’s largest wholesale food distribution centers. Hunts Point is plagued by insufficient storage, traffic congestion and lack of modern food safety protections. A decentralized system of food hubs along with the infrastructure to support them could alleviate pressure on Hunts Point and provide additional advantages.

Food hubs are centrally located facilities for the aggregation, storage, processing, distributing and marketing of regionally produced food. Farmers from all over could drop produce off at food hubs, where distributors and consumers could pick it up. Food hubs would offer small farmers more predictability in sales and eliminate the need for them to truck produce into the city, and allow mid-size farmers who deal with larger markets to reach smaller local farmers’ markets. Food hubs might also eventually include health clinics, education programs, processing facilities and restaurants.

Situating food distribution hubs in New York City’s five boroughs could reduce farmers’ driving time and costs, and decrease fuel consumption and C02 emissions.

While the regionalization of the food system is not a new concept, the New York Regional Foodshed Project’s recently unveiled Optimization Model Pilot is unique. It uses the data of various aspects of food production and distribution to address questions related to the regional food system, and can evaluate the best locations for food hubs, incorporating information on how land is used and where foods are produced. For instance, maps indicating apple orchard locations, apple cider processing facilities, major consumption centers and driving distances between them were overlaid to determine the optimal locations for storage and distribution hubs for apples. The best locations for new much needed beef slaughterhouses were ascertained by integrating maps of beef production, slaughter facilities, and consumption centers as well as driving time to the facilities.

Michael Conard, project manager for the New York Regional Foodshed Project, said, “Our model demonstrates that you can put a whole system together as a manageable and administrable entity and show what effects changes to it would bring. No other model does that.”

Farms, private businesses, public/private enterprises and government entities can use the model’s information to make smart and strategic decisions about locating new production, processing and distribution facilities.

Photo credit: Natalie Maynor

The next phase of research, Conard explained, will model the value chain for tomatoes, grains and dairy as each food product has its own particular infrastructure needs. It will recommend optimum sites for their production, processing, packaging, distribution and wholesale markets in 12 states in the Northeast. The next phase of the project will also develop the methodology to assess the health and economic impacts of regionalizing the food system.

By increasing the access and affordability of healthy foods, and improving food quality by decreasing the distance between farm and plate, the creation of a nationally integrated regional food system would go a long way toward helping combat obesity. In addition, it would benefit local economies and provide jobs, make life easier for small farmers, produce a more secure food system and lessen critical impacts on the environment.

Science for the Planet: In these short video explainers, discover how scientists and scholars across the Columbia Climate School are working to understand the effects of climate change and help solve the crisis.
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Gerard Sirois
12 years ago

Maybe you are a vegan or vegetarian promoting lots of vegetables in our diet. However many veg head are also obese. I was vegetarian for seventeen years and was always big.
Last March I decided to follow the recommendation found in Gary Taubes’ book
“Why We Get Fat” I lost 42 pounds and am in better health than the last twenty years I am now sixty four. Grains are the major cause in gaining weight.

12 years ago

I feel a big problem with society is the fact they we tend to eat out of convenience instead of eating what is healthy for us. It is easier to go to a drive through to get a meal instead of preparing one.

Obesity in America: The Growing Dilemma

12 years ago

I think that we are not a nation of obese, we are a nation of McDonald’s and Coca Cola. we urgently need to change national policy

Trishan Nagiah
12 years ago

hey Renee i completely agree with childhood obesity will be not be sustainable or effective on a broad scale if the larger food system is not addressed. Too much fast food going on in our daily diet and especially children love it.

Grace Sevilly
12 years ago

Obesity is the effect of a nation / society’s culture. Mcdonald’s, fast food chains, burgers, fries.. in the end education is still the key to help the nation or society fight its way through obesity

12 years ago

Urban farming is a cool idea — but in many cities in the US it is easier said than done because of laws against it.

For instance in Rochester, NY I purchased an abandoned lot through the city auction and proposed to create an apple orchard. But the city turned me down, telling me (and I had lots of discussion about it trying to change the outcome) that an agricultural use in the city is illegal because the zoning is residential or commercial and won’t permit agriculture.

Many US cities and burbs have rules that require people to maintain lawns and cut grass regularly. Contrast this with China when the norm outside the biggest cities is to have no lawns and to grow crops right up to the edge of residential apartment houses.

12 years ago

Hi Geoff, I think it’s often true that it takes time for policy and regulations to evolve so that enlightened ideas can be implemented. But as people continue to push for change, laws will change as well. For example, beekeeping was finally legalized in NYC in 2010.

Grace Sevilly
12 years ago

Yes, and also to add to the conversation, the laws are even trying to cut down those that provide valuable food to our tables. Take for example the raw milk farmers that are being hunted when they are only giving an alternative nutritious food source to our tables… sad but true

11 years ago

I think you hit the nail on the head when you state that a huge cause of the obesity epidemic stems from the easy availability of processed food that cheaper than fresh food–and often, much more convenient. This is a huge problem and should be greater oversight of companies that sell cheap, unhealthy food in my opinion.

11 years ago

[…] farms, terrible conditions for workers are commonplace in the food industry, and epidemics like obesity, diabetes, and heart disease can all be largely traced back to the food policies of this nation and […]

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