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Local or Community Food Systems

Local or community food systems are not new. Their history dates back as far as the early agricultural systems.

The term ‘food system’ is used to refer to all processes involved in providing our bodies with food. It includes on-farm activities such as growing, harvesting, and perhaps packaging. It also involves processing, transporting, marketing, and consuming food. One process that is often forgotten when we think of the food system is the disposal of food.

The food system can also be viewed from a broader perspective which includes inputs and outputs to system. This means inputs and outputs to all processes involved in the food system. When we look at the system from this broad perspective we also see that the system operates within a macro system of social, economic and natural features.

We stand to gain most from a local or community food system. In this kind of system food is produced, processed, distributed, consumed, and waste is disposed in ways that benefit all components of the local spatial area. The use of the word ‘community’ instead of ‘local’ puts the emphasis on ‘community’ and on strengthening or developing the relationships between all components of the food system.

Community food systems are very different from wider or more global food systems in many ways.

  • Enhanced local food security. Food security can be achieved by a community focus rather than an individual or household focus. Food recovery and gleaning projects have a vital role to play in providing organic produce to disadvantaged and poor groups within the community.
  • Reduction in distance between processes in the food system. By reducing distance between the processes environmental, economic and social costs are reduced. The shorter the distance between the processes the greater the connectedness between all people in the food system.
  • Increase in self-reliance. Community food systems allow communities to better meet their food needs and therefore builds resilience within the community.
  • Increased sustainability. Localising food and using organic techniques is a mechanism by which we can improve the sustainability of the production system.

Many current food production systems are unsustainable. The returns to the farmer are too low because, over time, the value of food has been increasingly captured by manufacturers, processors, and retailers, leaving little for the producer. The farmer is getting less for their produce and the consumer is paying more. The middle is where the money is going. This means less money to the rural communities, many of which enter rural decline as a result.

The aim of local and regional food systems is to create more direct links between farmers and consumers by growing food or raising livestock close to the markets where they are purchased. This results in the following advantages:

  • Consumers know where their food comes from
  • Consumers know how their food is grown (or raised)
  • Trust and connectedness is developed in the foodsheds
  • Farmers and consumers benefit economically by keeping money within the community
  • Environmental damage caused by transporting food over long distances is minimised.
  • Farmers especially young farmers are more likely to stay on the land that their family has nurtured for generations.

Systems need to change or new systems need to be put in place to take back more from the middle of the production-consumption cycle, so economic benefits can be spread more to communities and local economies. There are various ways we can localise food –community supported agriculturebox schemesfarmers groupsconsumer groups and cooperativesfarmers marketsyou-pick-it farmscommunity gardensclear labelling,food webs and local shopsfood recovery and gleaning projects, and slow food systems.

It is not all plain sailing. There are a number of possible blocks on the growth of community food systems. The chief one relates to competition policy that favours the growth of larger companies and farm holdings. The structure of state and corporate support for large intensive farms is such that they marginalise smaller, local systems. As a social movement community food systems may give way to the wider forces of globalisation.