Food Systems Introduction

eOrganic authors:

Garry Stephenson, Oregon State University

Debra Sohm-Lawson

What is a sustainable community food system?

A sustainable community food system, as defined by the University of California Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (UC SAREP), is a collaborative network that integrates sustainable food production, processing, distribution, consumption and waste management in order to enhance the environmental, economic and social health of a particular place. Some key features include:

  • A stable base of family farms that use sustainable production practices and emphasizes local inputs
  • Marketing and processing practices that create more direct links between farmers and consumers
  • Improved access by all community members to an adequate, affordable, nutritious diet
  • Food and agriculture-related businesses that create jobs and recirculate financial capital within the community
  • Improved living and working conditions for farm and food system labor

Learn more about sustainable community food systems from UC SAREP.

Discovering the Food System

Cornell University developed an online program called "Discovering the Food System" and it includes useful resources about food systems. The term "food system" is used frequently in discussions about nutrition, food, health, community economic development and agriculture. The food system includes all processes involved in keeping us fed: growing, harvesting, processing (or transforming or changing), packaging, transporting, marketing, consuming and disposing of food and food packages. It also includes the inputs needed and outputs generated at each step. The food system operates within and is influenced by social, political, economic and natural environments. Each step is also dependent on human resources that provide labor, research and education.

Food System Resources

  • How to Talk Food Systems - This CD offers a collection of key documents of research from the FrameWorks Institute on how Americans view the food system based on research conducted nationwide beginning in early 2005 and continuing through summer 2006. It includes the original research, messaging suggestions, and applications of the research findings.
  • U.S. Food System - Americans enjoy a diverse abundance of cheap food – spending a mere 9.9% of our disposable income on food. However, store prices do not reveal the external costs – economic, social, and environmental – that impact the sustainability of the food system. Considering the full life cycle of the U.S. food system helps to make the connection between consumption behaviors and production practices. Take a look at a few pertinent examples of unsustainable trends in the U.S. food system from the University of Michigan's Center for Sustainable Systems.


Published January 19, 2009

This is an eOrganic article and was reviewed for compliance with National Organic Program regulations by members of the eOrganic community. Always check with your organic certification agency before adopting new practices or using new materials. For more information, refer to eOrganic's articles on organic certification.