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Sustainable and Healthy Greater Boston Regional Foodshed

We envision a CLEAN foodshed: climate-focused, livable, education-enabled, action-oriented, and nourishing for all people.

Photo of Jacob Weiss
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Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

Tufts University's Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Researcher Institution

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

The team is a collaboration of faculty and students from the Agriculture, Food, and Environment Program of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy and the staff of the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project. The team includes the following people (in alphabetical order): Nicole Tichenor Blackstone (faculty) Sean Cash (faculty) Kevin Cody (staff) Tim Griffin (faculty) Jennifer Hashley (staff) Emily Moschowits (student) Christian Peters (faculty) Cyrena Thibodeau (student) Jacob Weiss (student)

Website of Legally Registered Entity

https://nutrition.tufts.edu

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 10+ years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Boston, Massachusetts

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

United States of America

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Greater Boston Regional Foodshed

What country is your selected Place located in?

United States of America

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

To understand our team’s relationship to the Greater Boston Regional Foodshed, you must first understand the word “foodshed.” It is probably older than you think. Walter Hedden, Chief of the Port Authority of New York City coined the term in 1929 in a book called How Great Cities Are Fed. In that original use, a foodshed is the geographic area from which a city gets its food, shaped by a messy combination of biophysical factors, like climate, and economic factors, like freight rates and tariffs.

More recently, the term foodshed has been used to mean something related, but different. A foodshed can be seen as a place for people to take action to create a more just and sustainable food system. In this newer usage, a foodshed may not provide all the food a city needs, but it can be a place for experimentation, a place in which to create a system that addresses the ills of the mainstream food system. From successful experimental foodsheds, perhaps the larger U.S. food system can be transformed.

Our team’s members all live, work, and study in the Greater Boston Regional Foodshed. Some of us train farmers. Some of us conduct research to study the capacity for the region to supply its own food. Some of us are students learning to integrate science and policy. All of us eat at least some food grown in the foodshed, though we also eat plenty of food from beyond its borders. Most of us are transplants to this part of the country, raised in other parts of the U.S. However, for many of us, Greater Boston is now our adopted home. We have a vested interest in its future.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

Boston lies at the northern end of the Northeast Corridor – a megalopolis that stretches south and west through southern New England, New York City, central New Jersey, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington D.C. These urban centers are extremely densely populated. Therefore, there is a need for a large amount of food. The area also has a lot of buying power. The GDP of the Boston metro area is close to half a trillion dollars.

The Greater Boston Region Foodshed (see map) stretches 200-miles from the city’s center, including both urban and rural areas across seven states. While densely populated, forest covers most of the region. To the untrained eye, these forests conceal a massive land transformation that occurred in colonial and pre-industrial New England – the widespread clearing of land for agriculture. Farming began moving westward in the late 1800s, due to competition from the larger farms and more fertile soils of the Midwest. Land not developed for residential, commercial, or industrial uses returned to forest.

Some land remains in agriculture. Dairy farming occupies much of this land, providing much of the region’s fluid milk. The region also produces specialized products such as maple syrup and cranberries. Ocean Spray, based in Massachusetts, is the oldest grower own cooperative and purchases 80% of cranberries in the US. The region once produced significant shares of the country’s potatoes, apples, and hops – crops still grown today, but primarily for local and regional markets.

There are 35 higher education institutions in Boston. Students make up a large percentage of the population, and these colleges and universities employ many people in the area. Biomedical sciences and biotechology thrive in this environment, accounting for much of the growth in Greater Boston’s economy. However, the concentration of wealth in urban areas causes some tension and presents a divide between urban and rural areas within the region. Despite the close geographic proximity between urban and rural places, the ideological distance between country and city can be great.

The people who make up the Greater Boston Regional Foodshed are incredibly diverse, representing a multitude of countries and cultures. Some are recent immigrants to the U.S., some come from other parts of the country, and some grew up here. Though there has been progress on fostering inclusivity and tolerance, there is still much work to do in and around Boston regarding racial inequality, economic inequality, and huge disparities in health outcomes. Food insecurity and poor diets are, in part, manifestations of these injustices. Yet, we believe that these disparities might be addressed by tapping shared values of pragmatism and fairness.

What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)

180000

What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?

15000000

Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

Over the next 30 years, our foodshed will be challenged by three issues: embedding values into the foodshed, adapting to climate change, and integrating climate refugees into our society. Today, the Boston foodshed is driven by a market imperative which minimizes the importance of values. Our values- resilience, equity, and connection- are hard to find. Additionally, climate change and mass migration will force our foodshed to adapt the methods used to produce food and integrate new people into our community.

Resilience

As climate change worsens, the Midwest and Western United States will experience more severe droughts and be unable to sustain current levels of production. Given these windfalls in production, our foodshed will need to produce more food for our foodshed and the rest of the country.  At the same time, millions more people around the globe will be displaced by the effects of climate change and look to the United States for shelter. Our public infrastructure and community organizations will be challenged to provide people, who are full of hope,[CT1] with the skills to succeed as consumers and producers of food.

Meeting these challenges requires innovation. Yet today, talented young people in Boston are driven to work for startups and consultants which rarely aim to design solutions for our foodshed. We need a paradigm shift where innovative businesses, policymakers, and academic institutions lead the charge and invest in resilient solutions for our foodshed.

Equity

Time and money present real challenges to eating healthier diets. These challenges are exacerbated by the city’s high cost of living, fast pace of life, and income inequalities. Despite living in neighboring communities, the median wealth of Whites is roughly 30,000 times higher than every other ethnic group, making farmland as well as healthy and sustainable products unaffordable for the groups who desire them most. Non-white households experience higher rates of death from diet related chronic disease and higher levels of food insecurity. And, many farmers of color have difficulty accessing farm land because it is expensive, or requires social connections that are out of reach. If not addressed head on, these disparities will undoubtedly be more severe in 2050.

Connection

Most people have a complicated relationship with food, sometimes indulging, sometimes abstaining, sometimes fretting, and sometimes being laissez-fairre. This somewhat apathetic relationship makes it difficult to drive collective action and create a culture and policies that enhance the role of food in our lives.

Sweeping policy solutions are needed to address challenges in the Boston Foodshed. Yet several states in the foodshed have Home Rule policies which make it difficult to implement policy on a large scale. Without better communication among stakeholders in our foodshed, we are doomed to fail at meeting the challenges of the next 30 years.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

Recognizing the forces that shaped the current food system

In the 1920s, Americans spent a much larger share of their disposable income on food than they do today – about 25 percent, compared to about 10 percent today. Increasing food production was an important policy goal. Research, innovation, and investment promoted productivity and efficiency, not only in agriculture but also throughout food supply chains. This push has unquestionably made food more abundant in the U.S. today than in 1920, but with unintended consequences. The goals of increasing productivity and efficiency made good sense in a world where limited food supplies made hunger inevitable for some people. We now find ourselves facing a world in which equitable distribution of healthy food, rather than absolute levels of production, constitute the primary challenges.

To address the challenges, we must recognize that the Twentieth Century focus on productivity worked to achieve its goals. The problem is that these goals are too narrow to address the broader challenges we face in the Twenty-first Century.

Taking a holistic approach

The forces that changed the U.S. food system over the past 100 years also shaped the food system of the Greater Boston Regional Foodshed. To address the challenges we face in the region’s food system, we must account for a range of social, economic, and environmental goals simultaneously, rather than in a piecemeal fashion. Specifically, we believe that the concerns of environmental sustainability, particularly climate change, cannot be addressed in isolation from the social and economic conditions that lead to food insecurity and poor diets. As described below, we advocate a vision for a CLEAN foodshed: climate-focused, livable, education-enabled, action-oriented, and nourishing.

Working together

The challenges are sufficiently complex that we believe every sector of the food system in the must be involved. This includes people who work directly in the food system such as farmers, fisher folk, processors, food manufacturers, distributors, retailers, restaurants, and institutional food service. It also includes people whose primary connection to food is through what they eat and what they buy. Finally, our scope encompasses those people who influence the food system through their work as community leaders, educators, policy makers, or researchers.

To make this vision tractable, we see action within a regional foodshed as critical to success. The total land area of the Greater Boston Regional Foodshed may be large, but its agricultural land base is modest – about 1.5 million hectares. It is a place large enough to be a model for food systems in the U.S. without being overwhelming.  

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

We envision a food system where our values-resilience, equity, and connection- determine our market relations. In this reimagined food system individuals are active agents in transforming the way food is produced based on shared values that are embedded within our regional food supply chain. High costs of living in the Boston foodshed are offset by a higher quality of life that prioritizes time spent preparing food, connecting to the land and soil, and accessing preserved green spaces in the form of community farms. Values that honor the cultural diversity of the Boston foodshed are mirrored in the cultural diversity of farmers surrounding the city who are supplying culturally preferred foods to their communities.

We envision a food system that harnesses the innovation and entrepreneurship born out of the area’s world-class universities. Under this new food regime, research and education drives mission-driven technological innovations that will reduce food waste, maximize efficiencies in the short food supply chain, and use locally-sourced products to make delicious, nutritious, and convenient processed foods. Initiatives to promote agricultural and food literacy are implemented, further driving consumer demand for affordable, nutritious, and regenerative food.

Lastly, we envision new farming enterprises that improve our regional resilience. The purchasing power of the Boston foodshed, and the values of its residents, can shape the extent and quality of agricultural enterprises throughout New England. This demand will revitalize certain agriculture sectors and expand the diversity of offerings made available from the local food supply chain. Revitalizing fallow agricultural lands, filling in the peri-urban landscape with smaller farms, and promoting regenerative agriculture through land-based training initiatives will provide opportunities for climate refugees.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

Our vision for a CLEAN Greater Boston Regional Foodshed

Climate-focused: Climate change gets addressed by the region acting to reduce emissions in accordance with the Paris Agreement on climate change. The region also acts to adapt to unavoidable levels of climate change, stepping up to leverage the fact that the Greater Boston Foodshed will have ample water for growing food in 2050 (something parts of the western U.S. may lack). At the same time, though climate change is a priority environmental issue, it is not the only issue. Expanding production must occur in a way that enhances agricultural soils, protects or improves water quality in the region’s waterways, and allows ecosystem restoration for the region’s fisheries.

Livable: The region becomes a better place to live than it is now. This occurs by challenging some treasured beliefs about American life, such as the desirability of the car and the single family detached home, in order to realize a future that is better for all. We envision cities and towns becoming more population dense, but also more walkable and filled with green spaces and community gardens growing food. Streets hold few personal cars, but faster more reliable public transit and bike routes. We envision some of our older housing infrastructure replaced by well-designed, LEED certified buildings that offer less-square footage at more affordable prices. We envision a region in which working two jobs to get by is not the norm for most people.

Education-enabled: Education, from K-12 through continuing education, enables people to see the world differently. This shift in perspective will be essential to finding solutions that create a food system that excels at producing balance (instead of abundance) for all people (as opposed to most people) within environmental limits (rather than at the expense of the environment). Creating sustainable food systems means understanding how we created the current food system and how we might improve it. As Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century suggests, sustainability will emerge from both incremental changes to our food system and transformative changes. We (in the Greater Boston Foodshed) should be ready to learn from the experiences of other places and to share what we have learned through our own experiences. 

Action-oriented: We figure out how to create a better system as we go. While we can learn from past mistakes, there is no blueprint for creating a regenerative and nourishing food future. Rather, we must build on successes and continually iterate any failures. This requires that people at all levels of the food system become a whole lot better at communicating and working together than we are now.

Nourishing: Balance and deliciousness rather than taste and convenience become the key drivers of our food decisions (price remains a determinant of what we eat, but not the quality of the diet). This will take a shift in mindset. The share of disposable income spent on food has decreased almost continuously for over a hundred years in the U.S. Much of this income is now spent on food away-from-home, though the majority of food eaten is still at home. Taste, price, and convenience drive the decisions of most consumers. Rather than seeing food as fuel that helps us to do what we need to do – much of which is work, food becomes a central part of daily life. This does not mean that meals always need to be long, but they should be balanced, delicious, and matched to our needs. They should give us the energy to be more active, which the Dietary Guidelines for Americans say we should all be doing and which more walkable environments would encourage. These meals should also satisfy us. What might it look like? See the Balanced Day picture.

Integrating the six themes

To show how our vision connects the themes, we will use an analogy. Imagine the foodshed as a home, not a house, but a home. It includes the places we eat, sleep, work, and play. It is where we live. Like a home, we might love it while acknowledging that it’s not perfect. We might try to make it better.

Our vision sees the Greater Boston Regional Foodshed as a home. The way we live in this home in 2020 can be described by our economics, the ways in which we produce and consume goods and services. The nature of our economy impacts the environment of this place and the global environment, meaning that how we live in this home needs to change. Food is among the many things we consume, and the way in which we eat, our diet, leaves most of us overfed and undernourished. The home was created through our collective actions, using materials that came from the foodshed and those from beyond it. The creation of this home was shaped by the desires of our culture and influenced by the available technology and the carrots and sticks of the policies that govern the foodshed.

The ways we would like the foodshed to look in 2050 are indeed different. Nonetheless, the analogy still holds true. To improve our home, we must work within the limits of our environment. We must discern what we most value, embarking on a journey of cultural growth that employs technology and policy in the service of the vision for a regenerative food system that provides nourishing diets.

Addressing the challenges

We believe that the challenges must be addressed together, not in isolation. That said we see each part of the CLEAN vision responding to specific challenges.

Climate change presents an urgent threat to humanity, not just the Greater Boston Foodshed. Addressing climate change is critical to help create regenerative food systems both in and beyond the foodshed. While much of the damage done to our foodshed’s environment was wrought historically by the clearing of land for farming and the over-harvest of our fisheries, responding to climate change offers the chance to re-imagine our farming and fisheries in ways that better fit our production systems to their ecological means. Thus, a climate-focused vision helps us to address environmental challenges to the food system.

In livable communities; which encompass not only the places where people live but also those where people work, study, and play; people have the means to eat well and be active. Economic inequality, high cost of living, and a fast pace of life mean that most people in the region have limited time and limited money. Many people may also lack the skills, know-how, or the energy to purchase and cook food that is delicious and healthy on a daily basis. Getting all the pieces to come together is difficult. Hence, the ‘livable’ part of our food vision encompasses the economic and social policies necessary to ensure people have ample time and means, plus policies to create built environments that reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.

Education helps us to see the world in new ways and prepares us for life. Some of this education must come through experience. Thus, the education-enabled and action-oriented parts of the vision are meant to call ‘all hands on deck,’ while leaving minds open to figure out exactly what needs to be done.

The food we grow must also be nourishing, not just in a nutrient dense, physiological sense, but it must also nourish our spirits.  That requires our food to be produced in ways that respect and regenerate the environment, that honor the labor to seed, plant, water, husband, harvest, slaughter, process or pack, and deliver food to our kitchens, and values the effort to prepare it for our consumption.  Each step from production to consumption must be fair, just, humane, and valued to center and contribute to the energy of the food.  Sharing meals and breaking bread together becomes more than an activity to fill our bellies, but also celebrates the connection that comes from the sun and soil to one another.  Eating becomes both energizing and nourishing.    

Making it happen

In the old story about stone soup, a hungry traveler inspires a hungry village to create a delicious meal that feeds everybody using only what they have. No one had all the pieces. Different people brought different elements (a pot, water to fill the pot, potatoes, carrots, salt, etc.) which together made the soup. The traveler brought only a stone and the ingenuity to invite the village to contribute the ingredients one at a time, making the goal seem attainable.

Like “stone soup,” our vision relies on the people of the Greater Boston Foodshed to share what they have to offer. We think that the vision of nourishing diets, livable communities, and regenerative food systems might be enough inspiration to begin the messy work of trying to improve the foodshed. Every ‘villager’ has a part in this story. What’s your role?

 

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

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Hi Jacob,
I read your submission with interest. Do you have any concepts that would reconfigure the Boston foodshed for 2050? Please consider me the traveler in your stone soup village and let me know your reaction to my submission.
Chuck

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