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From Farm to Fork

A food system includes everything from farm to table. A community food system is a food system in which food production, processing, distribution and consumption are integrated to enhance the environmental, economic, social and nutritional health of a particular place.

The concept of community food systems is sometimes used interchangeably with "local" or "regional" food systems,

This reflects a prescriptive approach to building a food system, one that holds sustainability - economic, environmental and social - as a long-term goal toward which a community strives.

Four aspects distinguish community food systems from the globalized food system that typifies the source of most food Americans eat: food security, proximity, self-reliance and sustainability.

  • Food security is a key goal of community food systems. While food security traditionally focuses on individual and household food needs, community food security addresses food access within a community context, especially for low-income households. It has a simultaneous goal of developing local food systems.
  • Proximity refers to the distance between various components of the food system. In community food systems such distances are generally shorter than those in the dominant or global food system. This proximity increases the likelihood that enduring relationships will form between different stakeholders in the food system--farmers, processors, retailers, restaurateurs, consumers, etc.
  • Self-reliance refers to the degree to which a community meets its own food needs. While the aim of community food systems is not total self-sufficiency (where all food is produced, processed, marketed and consumed within a defined boundary), increasing the degree of self-reliance for food, to be determined by a community partnership, is an important aspect of a community food system.
  • Sustainability refers to following agricultural and food system practices that do not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their food needs. Sustainability includes environmental protection, profitability, ethical treatment of food system workers, and community development. Sustainability of the food and agriculture system is increased when a diversified agriculture exists near strong and thriving markets, when non-renewable inputs required for every step in the food system are reduced, when farming systems rely less on agri-chemical fertilization and pest control, and when citizen participation in food system decision-making is enhanced.

Goals of Community Food Systems

Building a community food system requires comprehensive or holistic approaches to meeting the food needs of people living in a particular place. Efforts to develop community food systems address multiple goals simultaneously:
  • Optimized health, reduced risk of diet-related chronic diseases, and increased enjoyment of food among community members.
  • Dietary change that complements the seasonal availability of foods produced and processed by the local food and agriculture system.
  • Improved access for all community members to an adequate, affordable, nutritious diet.
  • A stable (or in some cases, expanding) base of family farms that use integrated production practices to enhance environmental quality.
  • Marketing channels and processing facilities that create more direct links between farmers and consumers, and, by shortening the distance between these partners, conserve resources needed for transporting food.
  • Food and agriculture-related businesses, resulting in stronger community economies through job creation, and re-circulating financial capital in the community.
  • Increased public participation in food and agriculture policies that promote local food production, access to local retail and processing markets, and institutional procurement of local agricultural commodities.

Elements of Community Food Systems

There are several well-recognized elements of a community food system:

  • Farmers' markets provide the opportunity for eaters to meet and talk directly with the people who grow the food they are buying. By the same token, farmers can learn more, in a direct way, about what their customers want and need to know about the food from their farms. By decreasing the amount of fuel used to move food around, this proximity to food sources increases the environmental sustainability of the system.
  • Community and school gardens are recognized as an important source of fresh produce, particularly for underserved populations in low-income neighborhoods, thereby increasing dietary quality and food security. They provide spaces for community interaction, decision-making, problem-solving, creativity and celebration. Community gardens also provide opportunities to learn about food production, develop job skills, increase agriculture literacy, generate food-related businesses, and create links to nearby restaurants and soup kitchens.
  • Community supported agriculture (CSA) farms are arrangements whereby a group of people buy shares into the eventual harvest of a farm before the crops are planted. In exchange for their investment into the farm, shareholders receive fresh fruits and vegetables (and sometimes, other products such as local cheeses, fresh flowers, eggs and meats), on a weekly basis throughout the harvest season.
  • U-Pick operations and roadside farm stands provide access to fresh produce direct from the farmer who grew it.

Adapted from: Discovering the Food System, A Primer on Community Food Systems: Linking Food, Nutrition and Agriculture, Cornell