Foodshed: The Geography of Local Food

The term “foodshed” is most often attributed to Arthur Getz, although it was coined by W.C. Hedden in the 1929 book “How Great Cities Are Fed”.  Getz used the analogy of the watershed to describe the specific area where our food comes from in a regional context. The term was adapted to describe the food-producing farms surrounding an urban region because it implies that the area is a valuable resource that needs protection.  The concept of a foodshed differs from that of a local food system or a sustainable food system because it takes into account the geographical and climatic characteristics that affect the food production of a region.  As opposed to looking at distance or food miles, a foodshed analysis examines a region by mapping assets. Consideration is given to land productivity, climate, the ecology of the region, and the urban density it supports.  The size of the foodshed is dependent on these factors, which in turn determine the availability and variety of local or regionally produced foods year round.  In response to growing recognition of the environmental and social destructiveness of the dominant food system, the foodshed emerged as an alternative food system based on bioregionalism.[1]

Tom Olson's High Country Bison: Well known for his commitment to the rehabilitation and ecological sustainability of heritage grasslands through bison ranching. This photo taken near Waterton, Alberta.

The foodshed as an alternative concept to the global food system is composed of many small and diversified farms that utilize sustainable practices in the production of foodstuffs. The foodshed consists of local processors as well as farmers, and food production is linked to consumers through community initiatives such as farmers markets or community supported agriculture.

Determining the foodshed of an urban center involves estimating the minimum distance within which the food needs of an urban population could be met, and the types of foods most likely to be produced locally. “Local” is a geographic descriptor that cannot be standardized, because both geography and climate influence agriculture and sustainable ranching practices. For example, in Vancouver, British Columbia, local might be defined as within a 200-kilometer radius. Due to the unique climate and elevation of Calgary, local is considered the equivalent of hundreds of kilometers away or a leisurely day’s drive. A leisurely day’s drive is often the distance required to travel for a lucrative market or urban center to market food.  However, based on these definitions, the foodshed for the city of Calgary would offer a dismal and arguably unhealthy selection of foodstuffs for most of the year (meat and dairy).

As a result of climate and geography, the foodshed for the city of Calgary could be considered quite small if viewed as the food producing farms within the city’s bioregion, or quite large if viewed from the perspective of the city’s northern location and resulting reliance on imported foods to securely feed the urban population for most of the year.  Apart from ranching, Alberta is known for growing ingredients (cereal crops) for export markets more than it is known for growing and producing whole food products to sell to local markets.  Knowing that the city of Calgary is not food secure if we are solely reliant on local food, how do we define the foodshed for the city of Calgary? Is our foodshed global?

Clementines from Spain in January...

Pierre Belanger and Angela Iarocci in their report “ Foodshed: The Globalized Infrastructure of the Ontario Food Terminal”[2] highlight that to describe the magnitude of the urban foodshed, to describe the flow of production and distribution supplying a city with a population over one million, across a chosen region is beyond immense.  The Toronto region produces ten times the local food of what the proposed foodshed for the city of Calgary produces, and in that region, there still remains an undeniable reliance on imported foodstuffs from the global foodshed.

The ability and flexibility of a city’s food system (outside of the foodshed) to expand and contract in response to the seasonality of the urban foodshed will provide the resilience and food security that will develop, grow, and provide into the twenty first century.  This framework is a model for long-term sustainability and certainly fits and works for the city of Calgary. During the summer and fall (harvest) months, more foodstuffs come from local farms.  During the winter, spring and early summer months, foodstuffs come from continental and international sources such as California, Mexico and beyond.  Creating and supporting the global foodshed is strategic and undeniably necessary as the most sustainable option for food distribution as we move forward into the twenty first century.

[1] Kloppenburg, J. & Lezberg, S. (no date). Getting It Straight Before We Eat Ourselves to Death: From Food System to Foodshed in the 21st Century. Wisconson Foodshed Research Project. Society and Natural Resources 9: 93-96. Retrieved October 20, 2006 from:

[2] Belanger, Pierre, & Iarocci, Angela. (2008). “ Foodshed: The Globalized Infrastructure of the Ontario Food Terminal”.  Retrieved April 22, 2012 from: