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Impact ABCs: Food System

Maggie Borden

November 16, 2016

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As James Beard famously said, "food is our common ground." We all share the experience of considering how to feed ourselves and our families—what to buy, what to make, when to eat. Those decisions may seem subjective and straightforward, but as you move beyond the quotidian and start thinking about how that meal gets to your plate, things get a little more complicated. The passionate cooks and eaters of tomorrow need to not only know how to whip up a delicious meal, but also what our choices mean for our food system as a whole. That’s why, in support of the JBF Impact Programs, we present this ongoing series on common food-policy terms: Impact ABCs. So dig in, get invested, and learn how you can make a difference in improving what’s on our global table.

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Sometimes called the "supply chain" or the "food chain," the food system refers to the network of stakeholders, inputs, and outputs that surround what we grow, eat, and discard. At its most basic level, the food system can be thought of as a linear process, starting with the question of “where does our food come from?” (i.e., what is the environment it’s grown in?) then moving down the line through processing, transport, retail, cooking, dining, and waste management. In reality, however, the food system is far from a straight line, incorporating a myriad of variables from environments to people to products.

For example, California’s food system incorporates both fruit farms and cattle ranches, which require different inputs (such as fertilizers for the fruit, or feed for the cattle). Those farms and ranches hire different workers who are employed under different conditions, which may also be affected by whether the farm or ranch is certified organic. The farmers and ranchers could be selling to chefs in restaurants, farmers' markets, or your local supermarket. And wherever that fruit or beef ends up, it could be composted, thrown into landfills, or donated. Food systems can be big or small, from your local community to the entire United States. The best model for the food system may be a jigsaw puzzle: when we talk about improving our food system, we’re really seeking to make the pieces fit together more tightly, to cover the gaps and make the final image a bit clearer.

Learn more about the JBF Impact Programs.

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Maggie Borden is associate editor at the James Beard Foundation. Find her on Instagram and Twitter.