Local food movements are trending across the country. For many, it’s the next “in” thing to do, but for others, supporting local agriculture has been a way of life long before there were trends, not to mention a huge benefit to local communities and economies.
So where does the term “food system” fit in when talking about local food? Everyone from academics to government officials are referring more to food systems when discussing sustainable agriculture, the future of farms, how to feed our growing population, and food equity challenges. This is because all of these issues are part of America’s food systems.
Also referred to as a food shed, the food system includes all components of how food is produced and distributed including everything in between from farm viability and labor costs to consumer demand and food access to education and energy.
There are seven core areas that comprise the food system and it is all of these areas working together that ultimately will help relocalize different regions or states committed to taking back the control of where food comes from and how it gets from farm to plate.
1.) Nutrient management is the control, movement, and coordination of primarily nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium from food waste, livestock manure, fertilizer, and other amendments in order to minimize the negative impacts of nutrient losses on the environment and to provide sufficient nutrients for crop and animal growth throughout their life cycles.
2.) Farm inputs are resources such as land, soil, fertilizer, animal feed, seed, labor, equipment, energy, and other agricultural production needs and costs that are essential for food production, as well as opportunities for reducing farm production expenses.
3.) Production is growing and raising food, and the expansion of that food production into additional markets. Major categories include dairy production, livestock grown for meat, maple syrup, fruits and vegetables, grains, honey, beer, hard cider, spirits, wine, and fish.
4.) Processing converts raw produce and animal products into food that can withstand shelf-life, transportation, and meet marketing demands. Food processing and manufacturing viability for farm and food businesses is determined by the stage of development and scale of operation.
5.) Wholesale distribution of food is the sale and storage to institutions and industrial and commercial resellers and is an important part of supplying all markets – from restaurants to supermarkets.
6.) Retail distribution is the reselling of food direct to consumers who purchase food in a variety of locations including grocery stores, country stores, food co-ops, farmers’ markets, CSAs, restaurants, superstores, schools, and hospitals.
7.) Consumer demand drives the marketplace. Where our food comes from and where people buy food are key variables for understanding how to boost consumer demand for local food products.
Across the country, we are far too reliant on food grown and distributed outside of our region and decisions made outside of our control. Even in locally conscious Vermont, only 5% of the food consumed in the state is produced there too. The entire state of Vermont has pulled together to develop the most comprehensive food systems plan in the country to strengthen the working landscape, improve the profitability of farms and food enterprises, maintain environmental resilience, and increase local food access for all Vermonters. Known as Vermont’s Farm to Plate Strategic Plan, the state is entering its fourth year out of ten where businesses, government, and non-profits are working together to bring Vermont’s food system back into balance by relocalizing where food is produced, how it is distributed, and how it impacts all of the food systems components along the way (environment, farmland, equity, marketing, etc.)
While local food movements are trending, it is really the regional food system approach that will ultimately move the dial in bringing a broken system back into balance. Supporting “regional” after “Vermont” is increasingly important as the New England states work to define the regional food shed. Each of the New England states is participating in the “New England Food Vision”—an aspiration to regionally produce at least 50 percent of the fresh, fair, and accessible food consumed by New Englanders by 2060.