Traverse City Record-Eagle

February 23, 2013

Ag Forum: How do you define community food system?

By ROB SIRRINE Special to the Record-Eagle
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — 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 (i.e. Deadzone in the Gulf of Mexico), the increasing obesity epidemic and associated health care costs, and food safety concerns and the cost 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 USDA 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 percent of a consumer’s food dollar in 1950. Where does the other 84 cents go? It goes toward marketing, processing, wholesaling, distribution and retailing.

One definition of 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.” Mary Hendrickson at the University of Missouri suggests that in contrast to the linear and hierarchical relationships in the globalized, industrial food system where farmers and eaters are firmly separated, 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.

Third, there is a focus on food access. Proponents of a community food system 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.

Fourth, a community food system strives for self-reliance. When the food that is grown in the region is also processed, sold and consumed in the region, a great share of a consumer’s food dollar stays and is respent in the community, thereby insulating the region from the whims of the global economy.

Finally, a community food system is sustainable. Farmers are profitable, food is produced in a way that minimizes environmental degradation and strengthens the rural fabric of communities. Thriving farmers markets, diversified U-Pick operations, Community Supported Agriculture, Farm to Institution Programs, restaurants, food trucks and grocery stores that purchase, promote and serve local food, a recognition of the economic development benefits of local food (like the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce pledge to make 20 percent of purchases local), public participation and, importantly, all players along the food chain from producer, to processor, to distributor and retailer retaining a share of the food dollar — this is a community food system.

For more information, please contact a Michigan State University Extension office or visit

Dr. Rob Sirrine is a Community Food Systems Educator with MSU Extension, Chair of the Northwest Michigan Food and Farming Network, and Affiliate of the MSU Center for Regional Food Systems.