Food: foodsheds and addressing childhood obesity.

Rose Eveleth

Researchers at MIT and Columbia recently spent billions of dollars investigating the causes of childhood obesity.  The resulting report came to many of the same conclusions that farmers have known for years: the current food industry surrounding kids is making them both fat and unhealthy.  In October, they proposed a solution: eat more local food.  To many, this is not a surprise.  Farmers have been championing the health benefits of their locally produced food for years.

The group’s report uses a term that has become more and more popular within researchers on this issue: “food shed.”  The term comes from the concept of watersheds, defined by the EPA as “the area of land where all of the water that is under it or drains off it goes to the same place.”  Essentially, we rely on watersheds for the water we use every day.  The same concept goes for a food shed: they are the area that naturally supplies our kitchens.  Today, our food shed is huge.  The average meal consists of ingredients that have traveled a collective 2,000 miles.  (Would you be so inclined to buy such far away foods if all the labels had this?)  Only one to two percent of all food we eat is produced locally.

The major focus of the October report is the idea of Integrated Regional Foodsheds.  Working with an example in New York City, the team identified a surrounding radius that could provide food for its included community – a simple combination of how much food the surrounding area can produce and how many people need to be fed.  For many of us, eating locally is no brainer, but it’s simply not affordable for a vast number of people in the United States.  The MIT study works out some of the math on what seems to be intuitive: local foods should cost less than foods shipped across the world – because you’re not paying for them to be shipped across the world.

What’s refreshing about the joint MIT Columbia study is their set of integrated solutions to the commercialized, cheap processed food epidemic.  There is no one solution, and they have designed and co-opted several independent initiatives into the program such as lawn to farm efforts, mobile markets and the 10×10 project.  To see more about the report and their solutions, visit their website.


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