Researchers at MIT and Columbia University believe the answer to the so-called obesity “epidemic” lies in getting Americans to eat more regional food. So they’re outlining different “foodsheds” that we should all be relying on for our needs—especially if we live in a U.S. city. Will it work? Can we afford it? Let’s take a look.
The PhysOrg news service spells out the proposal:

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 … [T]hese 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.

Lower the price? We don’t know about shopping in New England, but the farmers’ markets selling “local” foods in our nation’s capital are where people go for $11-per-pound pork chops and $5 pints of raspberries, not discounts. As for lowering the caloric content, it’s hard to see how a local carrot might have fewer calories from a carrot that’s traveled 500 miles. Unless it’s a scrawny organic veggie, of course—which makes the price differential even more appalling.
We suspect that these researchers’ real motive is to attack what they see as a food system that’s too efficient and provides too many calories. But with over 1 billion hungry people in the world, efficient food production is hardly a bad thing.
So-called “locavore” advocates usually make environmental arguments for reducing our “food miles,” the distance food travels from farm to fork. This, too, is just another trendy foodie myth. In 2006, researchers at New Zealand’s Lincoln University compared the emissions and energy performance of their country’s domestic agriculture industry. They found that shipping lamb from New Zealand to England was four times less emissions-intensive than serving the Brits lamb produced right in the UK.
Why is this so? Because of economies of scale. It’s the same reason fresh flowers grown in Kenya and shipped to England have a smaller environmental impact than blooms grown by Dutch producers closer to home. The production process in Kenya is much more efficient, and emits fewer greenhouse gases per flower. This efficiency more than makes up for the jet (or truck) fuel burned to bring it to market. Food miles, the New Zealand researchers aptly note, is “a very simplistic concept.”
But back to today’s “foodshed” research: If switching to a regional-food-only diet has any chance of reducing our waistlines, it’s likely to be the result of food boredom. Maybe people in Boise will eventually get sick of eating recipes dominated by sugar beets and potatoes. And as for Alaskans and North Dakotans, a long canned-food winter is enough to make anyone eat less. Especially when they see everything Californians would be allowed to eat in a locavore utopia.
Of course, instead of slimming down by ditching our whole food production system, people could simply balance their calorie intake with physical activity. Or would that be too simplistic?