Which Food System Do You Use to Get Your Calories?

Is there an alternative to the global food system where a person in the U.S. can get 2,000 affordable (no more than $10 / day), accessible, available, nutritious, tasty, familiar, quick, convenient, and safe calories? Obviously, the global food system is quite capable of hitting most of those guidelines as evidenced in Tom Barlow’s posting on Aol, “Eat for a Dollar a Day; Thanks, Costco”. Such foodstuffs comply with government regulations and they are acceptable to consumers who cannot afford or find otherwise.

Unfortunately, these same foods contain high levels of saturated fat, sugar, and sodium. When eaten to excess, which is too often the case when the target markets are those demographic groups that rely on them most to meet their basic food needs (see Natasha Singer’s posting in The New York Times, ”Fixing a World That Fosters Fat”), they contribute to serious obesity-related conditions such as hypertension, heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. But is health reason enough to go for another food system?

The diagram below illustrates the flow of food from points of production that can be almost anywhere in the world, through processing, preparation, and retail, to points of consumption that can be almost anywhere else in the world. Various non-profit, for-profit, governmental, and non-governmental organizations have assigned or assumed responsibilities to inspect food for compliance with safety regulations as it travels throughout the global distribution system on its way to consumers in communities and neighborhoods wherever they are located. The system is highly evolved and marvelously effective given its design specifications. However, it is also highly subsidized through trade agreements, tariffs, duties, taxes, incentives, price controls, and limited accountability for externality costs, which offset costs and keep prices low.

The major issue with total reliance on the global food system is that residents of a community / neighborhood are dependent on others outside their jurisdiction for food. Their lives are literally in the hands of those who do not suffer the abject consequences of failure to deliver. Climate change, natural disasters, unavailability of or exorbitant prices for fuel, political upheaval, and widespread pandemic outbreaks can singularly or in combination set a series of events in motion that threaten food security and safety. It is this risk to survival that makes the establishment of a local food system in every community, neighborhood, and rural area an imperative.

How does a local food system compare to the global food system? The diagram below offers a quick look. First of all, residents of a given local community / neighborhood take significant responsibility for their food supply, hence, the title “People-Centric Food System”. People are the social fabric or operating system by which skilled / licensed practitioners conduct food production, packaging, processing, and preparation so that “accessible, available, nutritious, tasty, familiar, quick, convenient, and safe calories” are delivered to community members through myriad retail outlets.

But does such a system provide sufficient calories to sustain residents? That depends on its business model and key metric. The diagram below offers three alternatives:

Food products of special types that target high-end niche markets and command top prices. The consumer subsidizes the local food system by paying a premium for unique, locally sourced products that cannot be easily purchased from global food system retail outlets. The key metric is cost / type.

Food products packaged in units (pounds, quarts, containers, bunches, etc.) generally available from the global food system for a lesser price. However, the locally sourced products are subsidized through grants and gifts (property, equipment, inputs, labor, etc.) awarded to those who produce, process, package, and prepare them so that prices are comparable to global system offerings. The key metric in this instance is cost / unit.

Food products are packaged into meals that, when consumed in a given day, yield 2,000 accessible, available, nutritious, tasty, familiar, quick, convenient, and safe calories for no more than $10. Additionally, the businesses involved in producing, processing, packaging, and preparing those calories for eventual consumption are profitable. As a result, the local food system is sustainable, not subsidized. The key metric is cost / calorie.

The first two are prevalent business models for local food enterprises in the U.S. today. They require subsidization through prices, grants, or gifts to remain solvent. However, they do not provide sufficient affordable calories in a given day for each community / neighborhood resident. The third alternative claims to meet all the criteria, but how does it work?

The graphic below begins to answer the question.

First, the clear intentions of the people-centric food system are as follows:

  • No more than $10 is spent by each person in the system for 2,000 calories per day
  • The businesses involved are profitable
  • The system is sustainable.
  • That intent drives the design of the system.

Second, community members transfer the knowledge they need to be successful through multiple forums, systems, processes, and tools made available by the community / neighborhood. They use this know-how to set the rules for local food security and safety, license food businesses, and build the community’s skill base in food system operations, In other words, they establish a strong foundation of competency upon which to take ownership of their food supply and focus on attaining self-sufficiency.

Third, the entry point is delivery of affordable calories where people live their lives. Mobile kitchens and food carts strategically distributed throughout communities and neighborhoods is the most effective way to accomplish this. The startup investment and operating expenses are low, the market penetration is high and offers a wide range of excellent meals from which to gain the needed calories, and the opportunity to catalyze significant interdependence among all manner of businesses throughout the local food system is substantial.

Today, less than 5% of the food (and calories) consumed in the U.S. is locally sourced. The answer to the question posed in the title is decidedly obvious–the global food system is the major source of calories. But the point of the question is to prompt thoughtful consideration as to the consequences, understand that there is a way out of the predicament, step up, step out, and make a difference in your community / neighborhood by participating in its local food system.

Future postings on this blog will go into more detail about how to implement a people-centric food system. Meanwhile, you are welcome to ask questions.

For examples about the evolution of a people-centric food system in Cleveland, take a look at the Growing Good Connections article, “A Local Government’s Transition from an Urban Agriculture Focus to a Comprehensive Food Systems Policy Approach” and postings about food desert mitigation initiatives in Cleveland on NEO Food Web.

More to come…

Originally posted to Sustainable Local Economic Development on Tumblr by Steve Bosserman on Sunday, August 22, 2010

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