Rethinking Our Food System to Combat Obesity
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.
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.
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.
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.