How is a community food system different than the globalized food system?

Community food systems can keep a greater share of a consumer’s food dollar with local farmers and in communities

The globalized industrial food system has been extremely successful providing us with an abundant supply of “inexpensive” food. However, some have argued that the true cost of food has been externalized through environmental degradation (eg. deadzone in the Gulf of Mexico), the increasing obesity epidemic and associated health care costs, food safety concerns and the costs of foodborne illness to name a few. 

While Americans spend less on food than any other developed country, it is the most vulnerable who spend a higher percentage of their income on food. On the production end, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, the farmers’ share of the consumers’ “food dollar” has declined to under 16 cents for every retail dollar. In contrast, farmers received nearly 50 cents of a consumer’s food dollar in 1950. Where does the other 84 cents go?  It goes toward marketing, processing, wholesaling, distribution and retailing. Developing a community food system is an alternative model that allows the public greater influence over their food consumption decisions.

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

In contrast to the linear and hierarchical relationships in the globalized industrial food system where farmers and eaters are firmly separated, (Hendrickson, 2000), a community food system envisions a value chain where farmers are as important as consumers, distributors, processors and retailers.  

In addition, there are several aspects of a community food system that distinguish it from the globalized food system. In a community food system, the food chain is shortened. Often consumers can purchase food directly from those who grow it. Relatedly, a higher percentage of food that is purchased is grown in the region.

Also, there is a focus on food access. Proponents of community food systems typically share an intentional effort to help get locally grown food into the hands and mouths of underserved residents. For example, many farmers markets in Michigan now accept EBT cards and Double Up Food Bucks.

A community food system also strives for self-reliance. When the food that is grown in the region is also processed, sold and consumed in the region, a greater share of a consumer’s food dollar stays and is re-spent in the community, thereby insulating the region better from the ups and downs of the global economy.

Finally, a community food system is sustainable. Farms are profitable, and food is produced in a way that minimizes environmental degradation and strengthens the rural fabric of communities.

What does a community food system look like in reality? It looks like thriving farmers markets, community-supported agriculture, farm-to-institution programs, restaurants, food trucks, and grocery stores that purchase, promote and serve local food. It includes support of local government and engaged citizens. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it requires that all players along the food chain -- from producer, to processor, to distributor and retailer retain a more equitable share of a consumer’s food dollar.

For more information please contact one of Michigan State University Extension's community food system educators or visit the MSU Center for Regional Food Systems.

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