What is a Food System?

The food system is an important component of community economic development and an indicator of social well-being within a community and region. Yet, the food system is often overlooked and undervalued as a means and strategy for building health, wealth, connection, and capacity where the food is produced (Meter 2010).

Because everyone needs to eat each day to thrive, the food system affects and touches everyone on a daily basis. Therefore, the local food system is an important resource and consideration for long-term community economic development and well-being.

A winter market day at the Harrisonburg Farmers Market.

When the food system is considered more comprehensively and holistically, its relationship to community health, wealth, connections, capacity, and other elements of overall community well-being becomes more apparent. Because a food system is so closely interconnected to the production, processing, distribution, sales, purchasing, preparation, consumption, and waste disposal pathways of food, its significance cannot be overstated.

A community-based food system can be defined as being socially embedded, economically invested, and integrated across food production, processing, distribution, consumption, and waste disposal to build health, wealth, connection, and capacity in a particular place. (Garrett and Feenstra 1999; Meter 2011).

A community-based food system is also directly connected to community and social viability, environmental stewardship, the viability of small- and medium-scale farms, farmland protection, the health of individuals, and overall food security, which are common attributes and values of a healthy, sustainable community.

Components and markets of a local, community-based food system may include:

•  Farmers markets.

•  Community-supported agriculture (CSAs).

•  U-pick operations and roadside stands.

•  Food cooperatives and chefs collaboratives.

•  Community gardens.

•  Farm-to-school, -university, -hospital, and -institution programs.

•  Food and meat processors.

•  Produce and livestock auctions.

•  Food banks and community food pantries.

•  Community kitchens.

•  Producer cooperatives.

•  Grocery stores, restaurants, and food service operations.

A tag cloud highlighting local food as a key component of the food system based on farm-to-table interests gathered at summits and forums.

From an asset-based, community economic development perspective, the local food system will include most of these components and markets, but it also seeks to build on local needs, resources, design, investment, and control to be more locally integrated and community-based.

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