Turning the food desert into a foodshed

December 02, 2009

Turning the food desert into a foodshed

The child obesity epidemic is a frightening reality in the United States with the Centers for Disease Control showing statistics that the percentage of obese teenagers grew from five to 18 percent between 1980 and 2006. For preteens, that number went from seven to 17 percent. And according to research by Kenneth E. Thorpe of Emory University, by 2018 an estimated 103 million Americans will be obese (43% of adults vs. 31% in 2008). Some researchers are suggesting that the weight problem of America is not as much of an issue of willpower as much as it is an issue of access to healthier foods.

We've heard quite a bit of talk about food deserts, which are areas where there is little access to foods needed to maintain a health diet but often served by plenty of fast food restaurants. These are generally areas where income is low, but higher calorie foods are more affordable. Markets rarely exist that will carry fresh produce and healthier items that are more expensive and go bad quicker.

In some food deserts, like Los Angeles, government enforced fast food moratoriums are being put in place, taxing on sodas in being considered, incentives are being offered for local farmer's markets, and all the buzz is urban micro-farming and buying local to cut down on costs of food traveling long distances.

A recent study organized by 10 researchers from MIT and Columbia University, analyzed the causes of child obesity, and their conclusion was 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.  In addition, the researchers proposed 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," meaning the area that naturally supplies its kitchens. The team of researchers propose the possibility of even 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.

Currently only about one to two percent of the food consumed in the United States is purchased locally, but the idea behind the "foodshed" is to promote the local effort in order to tackle obesity. Some initiatives are already being taken in some states to get locally grown foods into the schools, and with the growth of the food truck, we have been reading about produce trucks making stops in food deserts selling affordable fruits and vegetables.

The researchers recognize that the adoption of "foodsheds" is a long-term effort and one that requires lifestyle changes. However long it may take, it is imperative that families have more access to affordable healthy foods in order to tackle obesity and that the costs that result.