What Are the Parts of the Food System?

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As we approach the holiday season, my mind starts thinking about all the delicious food that I will be preparing and enjoying with loved ones. I also think about all of the people and processes that contribute to the food that I am able to enjoy via all of the components of the food system. So, what exactly is a food system?

Our food system is global and interconnected, meaning that we trade with states across the country, and countries all across the world, to have all of the food products we are so used to seeing throughout the year. When we think about the food system, most of us think about a limited number of the sectors, or components, of the system, primarily the food producers, and the food distributors, so mostly the beginning and the end of the cycle. All of the sectors play a role though, and they include the production of foods, distribution, processing, marketing and purchasing, preparation and consumption, and finally, waste recovery. When we refer to a food system, we are talking about how all of these aspects interact in full, for multiple foods and food products. With distribution, factors that impact how far a product can be transported and keep food safe through appropriate temperature controls are important to consider and work with. Processing refers to any sort of alteration that the food goes through before heading to market. This adds value to food products. Here we can think about jams and pre-cut and washed frozen vegetables. Marketing is a key component of successfully sharing food products with food consumers, as it helps communicate to consumers how and why they should choose to purchase specific food products. Resource and waste recovery refers to ways to use food past its prime or if it is slightly out of date from a retail operation, such as a grocery store.

All of these sectors of the food system work together and impact what food products are sold and consumed in any given place. Additionally, there are external factors that impact the food system. These include social, economic, political, and environmental influencers. Social influencers can also be called cultural influencers, and they are often seen impacting the food choices that consumers make, based on what individuals, families, and communities are familiar with and how we prepare the foods that we eat. All of these influencers can include benefits or barriers and costs that are not included in the market price of goods and services. A few examples of barriers are the costs of natural resource depletion, pollution, and other environmental and social factors that are often not accounted for in the market prices of food products. Folks have asked why it is that grocery store produce is often discarded (not composted or donated) when it is past its prime, and that can be directly tied to policies that are focused on food safety, making donations of foods that are past prime, against regulations, which is a political or regulatory influence on our waste and recovery sector. We also only see the produce that has been deemed flawless for the grocery stores, contributing to food waste in fields, of produce that is not blemish-free, because our consumer tendencies are to want blemish-free produce, which is a social influencer.

We are all impacted by these relationships and happenings, whether or not we work in the food system, since we are all consumers of food. There are regional, global, and local-specific contexts within which all of these sectors and influencers are interacting. The specific interactions in our local context play a direct role in how we are able to access foods, where the foods have been produced, and the impacts of that processing and distribution and waste recovery.

This winter, I’ll be doing an article series on food systems, so look for the next article next month, where I’ll dig into local food systems and how they fit within the larger food system, as well as how they differ. In the meantime, I hope you will join me in thinking about how these sectors of the food system impact your own life and food choices, our local food economy, and our meals, this holiday season and beyond.