Food Systems

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The food system consists of all stages, processes and activities from food production all the way to consumption, and eventually disposal of food products (see Figure 1). While issues pertaining to community food systems have not always been seen as a matter for local government intervention, cities and towns are increasingly recognizing the far-reaching impacts and opportunities contained within these various stages. For example, community food systems directly connect to public health goals such as reducing hunger or obesity; the protection and conservation of natural resources including energy, water and soil; and supporting or facilitating local economic growth.

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A sustainable food system is one that:

  • Ensures that all residents have access to healthy, affordable food options;
  • Minimizes the environmental impact of food production and transport;
  • Facilitates and encourages local food production and processing;
  • Creates local jobs that provide fair working conditions and a living wage;
  • Benefits local economies by supporting local food producers, retailers and businesses;
  • Maximizes resources through collection and reuse of organics (compost) and other food related byproducts (i.e. fats, oils, grease)

Examples of activities that support sustainable food systems:

  • Farmers' markets
  • Community gardens
  • Regional food hubs
  • Healthy corner store initiatives and/or programs to increase access to supermarkets
  • Farm-to-school programs
  • Food policy and/or security councils
  • Local food procurement policies
  • Food waste collection programs

Figure 1. Stages of a Sustainable Local Food System. Image courtesy of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, as published in Natural Awakenings magazine.


Local food systems seek to reduce the distance products travel between producer and consumer and can range from the neighborhood-level to a regional scale. A local "foodshed" is the area that can support the food needs within a region. While it varies in size depending on geographic features and season, foodsheds tend to encompass a 100-250 mile radius.

A sustainable local food system is typically characterized by a comprehensive set of factors and activities that minimize environmental impact, support local economies, increase access, and promote public health and nutrition. This approach, sometimes described as "farm-to-fork," tends to emphasize direct relationships between producers and consumers, and can often result in indirect benefits such as reduced crime rates and a greater sense of place and community.

Local governments can facilitate a healthy, local and sustainable food system through strategies like zoning code amendments, converting vacant land to gardens, encouraging community "garden sharing," developing local procurement policies, allowing farmers markets on public space, supporting small businesses focused on local foods, strategically placing grocery stores in disadvantaged areas, and collecting and repurposing food waste.

This section of the Sustainable Cities Institute has been developed to provide local government leaders across the country with the information, tools and resources to support the development of strong, healthy and sustainable local food systems.


Modern food systems operate within a complex multinational landscape. As food production and storage techniques have become more sophisticated, and yearlong demand for seasonal products has increased, our food systems have become more globalized, connecting people and economies all over the world.

In U.S. cities and towns, consumers interface with the global food supply overwhelmingly through retail outlets such as grocery stores, convenience stores, and restaurants. In this context very few consumers interact directly with growers or processors. From producer to consumer are hundreds, if not thousands, of miles where large-scale producers and distributors bridge gaps in food supplies and dominate the retail markets.

Featured Resources

Healthy Cleveland Resolution: Cleveland, OH

The Healthy Cleveland Resolution proposes a comprehensive agenda for improving access to healthy food in Cleveland's neighborhoods, increasing physical activity, addressing smoking cessation, and providing comprehensive support for residents with behavorial and mood disorders.

Baltimore Food Policy Initiative

Created in 2009, the Baltimore Food Policy Initiative (BFPI) is a national model for city leadership in increasing access to healthy, affordable foods.

Planning to eat? Innovative Local Government Plans & Policies to Build Healthy Food Systems in the United States

This report, produced by the Food Systems and Healthy Communities Lab at the University at Buffalo, The State University of New York (SUNY), highlights best practices from food production to disposal and is appropriate for local government officials and planners.

Sustainable Food Purchasing Development Policy

Adoption of a sustainable food purchasing policy enables institutions to move from isolated projects, sustained by the interest and involvement of a few people, to an institutional framework for understanding and making change towards a more sustainable food system.