What Is a (Good) Food System?


What are some of the elements around us that make up a food system? And what are some additional elements that make that food system work fairly for everyone? Here’s a little exploration.



Cobbling Together a Better System

To get down to the elements of a good food system, let’s start by first injecting some guiding positive values such as sustainability, accessibility and participation, justice and equity, healthy communities, and strong local economies. Adopting guiding values helps create focus points toward understanding what other elements will help push a generic food system toward being better.

For a good food system to function, here are just a few additional elements worth considering. Many of these elements tend to exist, in some form, in popular movements dedicated to positive social, economic, and/or environmental change and are all collected from real-world examples. As you look through them, what opportunities for food system improvements come to mind?


29 Elements of a Good Food System

1. Production (Growing & Harvesting): What food is being grown and harvested? Through what agricultural/social/economic practices? By whom? For whom? Is the food culturally desirable? Under what conditions? Are those involved in production able to enjoy the product themselves?

2. Processing & Packaging: Do producers have fair access to processing equipment and packaging materials? Who personally packages the food? Under what conditions? What are the ecological effects of the packaging and processing? Are the ecological and public health impacts of the processes understood and openly acknowledged? Are those involved able to enjoy the product themselves?

3. Wholesale Distribution & the Transportation Involved: Are there means in place for smaller-scale, local/regional producers to access wholesale markets? Are there efficient and practical means to get the product to the wholesale distribution point? How far does it have to travel? Are there known incentives for wholesalers to distribute local product? Is marketing & business assistance available for producers? Can small-scale producers that aggregate their product for wholesale distribution still maintain their brand/identity? Are those involved able to enjoy the product themselves?

4. Retail Distribution & the Transportation Involved: Whereas a wholesaler sells items in bulk to retailers, retailers sell items individually, directly to the public. Retailers then, as another level of getting quality food to the general public, factor into the wholesale distribution concerns above with the added layer of often being in closer contact with the communities with which they work. Are retailers responsive to the surrounding cultures in terms of providing desirable products? Are they locally-owned, -invested, or do they extract dollars from the community? Do they employ fair labor practices?

5. Grassroots Food Activism: As a good food system is always striving for improvement, grassroots activism toward a more empowered, community-driven food system helps make voices heard, issues known, communities more organized, innovations and community assets more accessible, and can help to increase political and economic leverage for traditionally marginalized communities.

6. Community-Based Sustainability Initiatives: Such initiatives help keep food, community, and ecology connected in ways that highlight the ecological impacts of a food system and illuminate the community’s place within and as a part of it. They can help increase the community’s investment in its own landbase and can bridge various shades of progressive work taking place (e.g. between food justice and broader environmental justice initiatives). These initiatives can help keep a community mindful, connected, invested, & innovative.

7. Policy Work: It is important that communities have a sense of which policies (at any legislative level) affect their food system and how they can, in turn, affect those policies. This relates across a wide spectrum, including (but not limited to) policies affecting local economy and entrepreneurship opportunities, food safety, general community activism, food access, knowledge & resource sharing, urban agriculture, and other means toward self-sufficiency and community-focused interdependence.

8. Food Safety Issues and Oversight:Oversight should be conducted in such a way that it promotes high-quality local foods and their preparation as much as possible in areas of retail and consumption. Safety issues pertaining to the local production of typically government-regulated items and processes could be opened to more participatory modes of regulation backed by expert consultation. Safety issues pertaining to preparation and storage should be well understood and there should be transparency in the decision-making process.

9. Project Funding Resources: As more people and organizations take active roles in the food system and local economy, financing options can be explored that offer relatively low overhead in terms getting new projects off the ground that will benefit the greater community, and financing could be based more on the project’s plan, its potential community benefit, and local support than on traditional credit barriers.

10. Technology Integration (Mobile App Design, Online Tools, Efficient Processing Equipment, etc.): With the proliferation of connected and multifunction technology, more effective and innovative tools can be developed that are responsive to creating a more accessible, equitable, sustainable, locally-focused food system. This can be done, for instance, in terms of sharing information, market/exchange coordination, brand building and social media networking, injecting “easy pay” methods, coordinating equipment sharing, and generally building innovative convenience increasingly into the food system.

11. Educational Opportunities: These exist within each element of a good food system in terms of fostering participation and leadership. There are opportunities for non-hierarchical, participatory education modes for fostering community-guided, action-oriented, collaborative learning such as “popular education” and “participatory action research” methods.

12. Labor: How much control do those laboring have over the conditions of their work? Are they engaged in meaningful work? Do they feel a sense of ownership and/or have actual ownership of their work and what is being produced? Are they organized to an extent that laborers can improve their working conditions as needed? Are there particular communities & demographics that are over-burdened with onerous and rote work? Are there pathways toward further personal & career development within assumed positions? Do they have access to living wages?

13. Social Rehabilitation: Areas throughout a good food system provide numerous opportunities for skill development, job training, general education, and inroads toward leading productive, contributing lives. Each sector could be developed to include these capabilities.

14. Industry Sector Associations (Farmers Associations, Restaurant Workers Councils, etc.): Groups within sectors of the food system can network and organize together to share resources and bargaining power toward increased efficiency and fairness. Once organized, they can also work with other sectors of the food system to more easily improve/innovate interdependent relationships.

15. Justice & Anti-Oppression Work: As many of our current socioeconomic disparities across food systems stem from histories of various forms and intersections of oppression, exploitation, marginalization, and violence, a large part of building a good food system involves acknowledging those histories and doing the community work that will make necessary room for participation and equitable access.


16. Youth Initiatives:Involving youth at all levels of the food system and exposing them to the values and strategies of a good system is key to both promoting and improving it throughout the coming generations. Innumerable possibilities exist as well for inter-generational work in terms of sharing knowledge and resources.

17. Resource Sharing (Land, Tools, Seeds, Plants, Food, Knowledge, Etc.): Community-building is an essential part of building a lasting, good food system. Sharing resources grows interest, stimulates more cooperative relationships, stimulates inter-generational connections, and reduces material waste and excess. There are many ways this could be further incorporated into each sector of a food system.

18. Consumption: Are community dinners a part of the local culture? Are people more likely to eat alone and/or on the move? Are “fast” and highly-processed foods a likely option due to strict work schedules, pricing, perceptions of cost, or other availability issues? Are efforts to promote quality consumption in fun, social, and convenient ways limited to more privileged socioeconomic classes where less privileged tend to receive charity? Are good foods available to the communities that produce them? Are particular demographics more susceptible to consumption-related negative health outcomes? There are many factors that lead to what food is consumed and in what context that need to be understood and addressed cooperatively.

19. Waste Management: Food & packaging waste should be minimal. Food exchanged according to market regulations (where the allocation of goods is determined by who can afford them) has been shown to result in dramatic amounts of food waste. As such, developing more cooperative models for food exchange lends itself toward more efficient production, distribution, and less waste. Also, attention should be given to understanding the versatility of foods and their many uses and ways of preparation and preservation so as to harvest as much use from them as possible. Avoiding waste also relates to “human resources” by respecting labor and treating human effort fairly through living wages, good employment practices, and worker-owned cooperative businesses.

20. Recovery: As a good food system is not linear but cyclical, products that do not sell at market can be used/donated in other ways, and if they are beyond consumption, can be composted and fed back into food production. There are opportunities here for entrepreneurship in terms of projects related to food recovery (food redistribution banks, food collection for compost, compost retail/distribution, etc.). This also relates to “human resources” in terms of social rehabilitation and recovering human potential through training, maintaining accessible job markets, and allowing everyone opportunities to contribute.

21. Inter-Community Networking (Projects Enabling Communities to Better Network with One Another): As communities work to build better food systems, developing methods of effectively communicating interests, strategies, and tactics across communities can be extremely helpful. Networking can help share project news, give people connections for getting involved, promote collaboration, share best practices and adaptations, and stoke momentum toward more good work.

22. Collective Impact – Partnerships/Coalitions/Collaborations Pulling System Elements Together:Networking across the full spectrum of the food system can yield beneficial results as relationships are strengthened and potentially streamlined. For example, produce distribution could partner with entrepreneurial youth hiring them during the summer to  distribute shares of produce via bike trailers to neighborhood homes, and in turn, collect composting to put back into food production.

23. Food Hubs: These entities actively manage the aggregation, distribution, and often marketing of source-identified food products primarily from local and regional producers in order to strengthen the ability of producers to stratify and meet retail, wholesale, and institutional demand.[1] This can be a very effective way to make products from small producers more widely available, build direct and cooperative relationships between consumers and producers, assist both consumers and producers in utilizing useful technologies, and potentially function in additional ways that cater to different aspects of the overall food system.

24. Labor & Management Cooperation throughout the System (Participatory Governance): These relationships often get overlooked (from farm workers to restaurant staff to truck drivers and so on). If the overall food system is to be sustainable, accessible, and equitable, it is important that everyone be included in the process, have an informed say in the decisions that affect them, and work toward more cooperative and horizontal ways of making decisions.

25. Fitness & Health: These should be promoted across communities with cultural sensitivity that avoids “body shaming” and instead promotes body-positive ways of striving toward health as communities work together in informed ways to define it, all while crafting and building resources to support both individual and community wellness paths.

26. Pleasure & Respect: M.F.K. Fisher said, “First we eat, then we do everything else.” Food is more than sustenance; it is a cultural center. It continuously creates and is created by culture; creates and is created by community; creates and is created by pleasure. And as everyone can experience pleasure, the act itself needs to be democratized and available to all. The power that food has to convene and elevate deserves respect and celebration.

27. De-commoditization (Implementing Market Alternatives): As food is a necessity for life, it should not be treated as a commodity and left to the market to decide how it is allocated. Through markets, access is determined by who can pay for it, which occurs in the midst of (1) abstract price fluctuation caused by market speculation (often creating “bubbles”) and while (2) negative effects of the exchange between buyer and seller are externalized (that is, transactions don’t take into account most environmental impacts, labor conditions along the supply chain, miles traveled, etc., and so these non-immediate factors are “externalized” and not adequately considered). Alternative models for food exchange that are not market-based can take much broader social/economic/ecological inputs and outputs into account to determine exchange rates, be more flexible in working with historically marginalized communities, increase efficiency, and drastically reduce waste.

28. Gender: Raj Patel said, “gender is key to food insecurity and malnourishment, because women and girls are disproportionately disempowered through current processes and politics of food’s production, consumption, and distribution.”[2] There is a level of activism and intention that a good food system requires that works to erase inequalities in power, access, and control across genders. This takes shape in and across all food system sectors in ways that focus on providing support, training and capacity building, reworking how decisions are made and how organizations are structured, and working to end all violence against women conclusively.

29. Elders: This stage of personal development concerns sharing accumulated knowledge and skills and deserves respect as a critical process. Elders convey senses of “culture, tradition, and ‘being a human being’ based upon their experiences…[and] this teaching is seen as essential to facilitating a strong sense of cultural identity and healing, especially in urban settings.”[3] Through inter-generational sharing and collecting oral histories,[4] much can be illuminated regarding food-focused history, changes within and around communities, and better understanding and providing context for which social practices tend to be beneficial and which should be avoided.

Stoking the Imagination

This is an effort to not only better frame what can collectively constitute a good food system, but illuminate a few overlooked places ripe for intervention and innovation. Active Food Policy Councils play in this space of instigating, promoting, and coordinating many of these elements into better local and regional food systems. There’s certainly no shortage of places in which to plug and connect, and getting involved with a Food Policy Council is always a great place to start. What do you want your food system to do and where do you want to plug in?