Nearly two out of three Americans are overweight or obese and obesity is now the fastest growing cause of disease and death in the country. In 2000, the total annual cost of obesity in America was $117 billion. The most alarming aspect of this trend is the rapid rise in rates of childhood obesity, which has been linked to early-onset type II diabetes, and has substantial impacts on life expectancy and quality of life. Integrated strategies are needed to improve outcomes across the country.
With the support of a $1.9 million grant from the United Health Foundation, researchers from the Urban Design Lab at Columbia University’s Earth Institute and the Collaborative Initiatives at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have joined to address the complex issues related to this epidemic. To date, two phases of the study have been completed.
The project brings together experts in public health, medicine, business, economics and design to apply a “big-picture” perspective while identifying and analyzing issues on a variety of scales. Ultimately, the goal is to pinpoint strategies for arresting and reversing the trend in childhood obesity and to provide recommendations for implementing national pilot projects.
The first phase of the study determined 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 organizations working at local and community levels are making inroads in specific locations; however, these efforts are undermined by the gaps in access to and the affordability of healthy foods. To adequately address the obesity epidemic among American children, we need to employ strategies as comprehensive and ambitious as the pioneering environmental legislation of the 1970s and the current antismoking campaign.
The second phase developed and refined the concept of a comprehensive food system infrastructure that promotes access and affordability to healthy food by integrating local, regional, and national efforts. Using data, analysis and recommendations from the first phase, industry leaders were engaged in a conversation on the future of our food system. Several models were explored as building blocks for a new national food infrastructure.
Among these models, the most promising is the Integrated Regional Foodshed. This overarching concept is similar to a watershed, where most of the necessary food for a region is provided within a defined geographic area thereby decreasing the cost of healthy foods by decreasing production, processing, and transportation costs and increasing access.
Additional components of the study have examined new models for food production, retail, and education. Representative pilots include:
• Food Terminals, which are transformed urban and suburban spaces designed to foster partnerships around food production, retail, and education, would occupy non-traditional sites in areas with low food access.
• Networks of Mobile Markets in retrofitted buses or trucks could provide food retail for underserved rural areas. These mobile markets could operate from existing food distribution centers.
• Lawn to Farm envisions an expansion of the existing trend of converting underused suburban spaces, such as lawns, into food-producing landscapes.
• The 10 x 10 project, comprising modular food production units distributed to schools, community centers, and Boys and Girls Clubs, would provide children with a hands-on, direct food production experience, as well as appreciation of fresh foods. Educational projects will achieve the greatest success if dependent on an Integrated Regional Foodshed that enables people to act on what they learn.
The Urban Design Lab (UDL) integrates social processes, education initiatives, technological solutions, and political empowerment to create long-lasting sustainable changes in communities. UDL also provides technical and consultation services to community-based organizations, with the goal of incorporating sustainable alternatives for meeting development needs.
Collaborative Initiatives (CI) at MIT works to develop systemic solutions to complex “big-picture” issues that can be addressed effectively only through multidisciplinary efforts. CI brings together leaders and technical experts from a range of disciplines who who are not satisfied with traditional mechanisms for change, and want to accelerate the development and application of new ideas.
The United Health Foundation was established by UnitedHealth Group in 1999 as a not-for-profit, private foundation dedicated to improving health and health care. Its mission is to support health and people in communities by working with others to improve the quality and cost effectiveness of medical outcomes; to expand access to health-care services for those in challenging circumstances; and to enhance the well-being of communities.
UDL: Richard Plunz, Michael Conard, Kubi Ackerman, Cindy Chiou, Dimitris Vlachopoulos, Lindsay Schubiner. CI: Dr. Tenley Albright, Kenneth Kaplan
Presentation (PDF, 6 MB)