Washing Carrots at Johnson's Backyard Garden [Photo Credit: Becca Montjoy]

What Makes Up a Food System? Breaking it Down into 4 Parts

Since the coronavirus upended our daily lives, you might find yourself thinking more than ever about how to get food on your plate.

Mile-long food bank lines are a stark contrast to stories of unused supply like milk dumping. These stories highlight how complicated it can be to get food from farms and ranches onto your plate.

So, what does our current food system look like, and how does it work? And if it’s broken, how can we fix it? Let’s take a look at the four main parts of our food system and the factors that influence them.

We’ll also look at what SFC and our partners are doing to move towards a stronger local food system in Central Texas: one that is equitable, resilient and sustainable, and will restore the natural resources we use to grow our food.

food system chart

Food System Basics

Food systems include the nuts and bolts of what it takes to move food from point A to point B along a supply chain. From labor and transportation to policies and climate, many factors influence how food gets from the farm to your fork.

We can also see food systems running at local, regional, national, or international levels. Production, processing, distribution, and consumption - food systems require many steps, each with a variety of inputs and outputs.

Flintrock Hill Seedlings

Veggie starts at Flintrock Hill Farm [Photo Credit: Naomi Silverman]

Step 1: Production

What goes in: Knowledge of how to raise crops and livestock, sun, soil, water, air, seeds, livestock, access to land, tools, farm equipment

What comes out: Food ready for processing (also feed for animals, fiber for textiles, and biofuel, but we’re focusing on food for humans in this piece)

Production can look very different depending on the scale and growing methods used. Whether they farm a half-acre plot or a 50-thousand-acre ranch, food producers have a lot of choices to make about how they will grow food, including whether to cultivate one crop or a diverse array of fruits and vegetables, and whether to apply organic or synthetic fertilizers.

While some farmers produce resources on-farm, there is an entire industry built on production inputs – including seed companies, plant nurseries, animal feed companies, fertilizer producers, and others.

Some Central Texas producers and influencers: Farmers and ranchers who sell at SFC Farmers’ Markets and other local outlets, Farmshare Austin’s Land Link program, which matches aspiring farmers with available farmland, home gardeners, school gardens, and community gardens, including members of SFC’s Spread the Harvest project and more.

Cracking Pecans at Big Brazos Farm

Cracking Pecans at Big Brazos Farm

Step 2: Processing

What goes in: Harvest, packaging, storage, and processing facilities

What comes out: Food ready for sale and distribution

Every food requires some level of processing, storage, and/or packaging, whether it’s rinsing off freshly pulled carrots and putting them into a CSA box or the multi-step process of transforming wheat from the field into dry cereal packaged in an airtight bag.

Small-scale farmers often have trouble accessing existing processing facilities, but building new ones is an expensive undertaking. Currently, most of the meat consumed in the US is processed in just a handful of slaughterhouses, but the recent closures of meatpacking plants due to COVID-19 has exposed the danger of this practice.

In contrast, facilities like regional grain mills and small-scale meat processors help make the local food system more resilient. If one, or a few, have to temporarily close, it is less disruptive to the overall system.

Some Central Texas processors: Barton Springs Mill (grain mill), I O Ranch (beef, lamb, goat, and hog processing), Dewberry Hills Farm (chicken and turkey processing), SFC kitchen rentals for small

Family Shopping at Market

Family Shopping at Market [Photo Credit: ixi photography]

Step 3: Distribution

What goes in: Food ready for sale or distribution, sales outlets, marketing efforts

What comes out: Food ready for purchase and preparation

In the distribution step, food gets to those who will prepare it for consumption. There is an almost endless variety of ways to distribute food, both for a fee and for free.

Restaurants, convenience stores, supermarkets, and cooperatives sell to the general public. Direct-to-consumer sales outlets like farmers’ markets, farm stands, and CSAs all link food producers directly to their customers. Food banks distribute food to partner food pantries where they provide it for free to low-income households.

Wholesalers combine products from many producers to sell to schools, hospitals, restaurants, and grocery stores. These large-scale buyers often have different requirements than those who sell food to the general public—such as liquid eggs for restaurants, and milk in cartons for schools—and it can be difficult for producers to quickly pivot their production systems to meet different market needs.

As schools and restaurants closed due to the pandemic, these sales dropped sharply, contributing to the phenomenon of heightened food waste during the global pandemic.

A major issue related to distribution is food access. Programs like SNAP and WIC are essential social safety net programs that help households purchase nutritious and culturally relevant food. SFC is currently leading the statewide expansion of the Double Up Food Bucks program, which doubles the value of SNAP and WIC benefits at many farmers’ markets and other local food sales outlets so that everyone can support their local food economy, regardless of income.

Some Central Texas distributors: SFC farmers’ markets and other local outlets; online direct-to-consumer stores selling locally produced food, like Farmshare Austin and Farmhouse Delivery; CSAs (search on Local Harvest); Central Texas Food Bank

Hands Cutting Sweet Potatoes

Hands Cutting Sweet Potatoes [Photo Credit: Becca Montjoy]

Step 4: Consumption

What goes in: Food that is ready to prepare, knowledge of food preparation techniques, cooking appliances

What comes out: Ready to eat food

This is the part of the food system that everyone takes part in—eating! In the US before the pandemic, roughly half of the money we spent on food was eaten away from home - a number that shrank as restaurants and workplace cafeterias closed. This means many of us are now doing more of our own food preparation.

This means more of us are cooking home than we did before.

Family traditions, cultural heritage, time, dietary needs, budget, and personal preferences guide how we cook at home, and some of these factors may evolve over time.

Nutrition issues are often cited as problems related to how we consume food. According to the US Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, 89% of us consume more sodium and 70% of us consume more added sugar than the recommended limits, which can contribute to higher levels of diet-related diseases like hypertension and type-2 diabetes.

The structure of our current national food system promotes sodium- and sugar-rich processed foods. We can build up the health of our community and local economy by consuming fresh, locally produced fruit, vegetables, and lean protein, and SFC is working to ensure those choices are available and accessible for everyone.

Central Texas consumers include: You! and all of us, plus SFC’s The Happy Kitchen/La Cocina Alegre®

Tractor at Lightsey Farm

Tractor at Lightsey Farm

What Moves Food through the Food System?

In addition to the inputs and outputs listed for each step, the following are also present every step of the way:

  • Labor. Migrant farmworkers, farmer family members and community members, farmers’ market staff, supermarket cashiers, meat plant workers, restaurant staff—it can require an incredible amount of human effort to get food from the field onto your plate. Providing workers a living wage and safe working conditions can help protect the people who make it possible for us to eat.
  • Energy. Try to picture all the fuel and electricity needed to power tractors, farm equipment, factories, delivery trucks, restaurants and grocery stores, and your kitchen appliance. The food system can be very energy-intensive, though some farmers like Milagro Farms seek to reduce dependence on fossil fuels by switching to renewable energy and finding sales outlets closer to home.
  • Waste. Food is packaged and repackaged as it moves through the food system, and there are losses at every step. Reducing packaging, recycling used packaging, and turning waste into biogas or compost can slash waste within the food system.
Bull at Copper Creek

Bull at Copper Creek Ranch

What Shapes the Food System?

These factors influence the food system as a whole:

  • Policy. Agricultural and food policy includes the regulations producers need to follow to sell their goods, government aid to producers and consumers, trade agreements, and more. The last Texas legislative session led to some local food policy wins, such as limiting the permit fees farmers must pay for selling at multiple farmers’ markets and making it easier to sell pickled and frozen fruits and vegetables. The current national farm bill increased funding for programs SFC champions, including conservation programs and SNAP.
  • Climate. Climate and weather patterns have always had a large impact on farming. There’s no question the unpredictable weather patterns, extreme temperatures, floods, and droughts brought on by climate change add more uncertainty to the food system. Seed scientists are working to breed drought-resistant and heat-loving varieties that are adapted to local conditions. Many universities and research groups are searching for climate-smart ways to ensure that we can grow food and get it to those who need it for generations to come.

Hand Holding Beets at Springfield Farm

Hand Holding Beets at Springfield Farm [Photo Credit: Naomi Silverman]

How You Can Strengthen Our Local Food System

Supporting our local food system can help our community become more resilient in the face of challenges like the current pandemic and climate change.

Shorter supply chains, less transportation, less processing, and more traceable and transparent production are all advantages of a local food system. Here are some tips for supporting a thriving Central Texas food system:

  • Buy local using our list of food access resources in Central Texas during COVID-19.
  • See if you qualify for food assistance, especially if your household income has dropped during the pandemic. With many local sales outlets accepting SNAP and WIC benefits, you can help keep food dollars local.