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Sustainable Local Food Systems: A Look at the Issues, the Benefits, the Future

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By Karlee Shields

· 14 min read

Everyone deserves a right to healthy, high quality, and nutritious food. The current situation of our national and even global food system, is failing to support this right. While unfortunately, big, industrial agriculture continues to dominate the farming and food industry, there seems to be a growing disconnect between where our food actually comes from and how it gets on our plates. An ever-constant struggle of food injustice within communities is an issue that is also continuing to grow. How can we work to detangle the food and farming issues within our own local food systems so that it can become more sustainable and just for our future community members?

In order to begin advocating for change, it is important to understand the political, cultural, and environmental issues that have a strong grasp on our current food system today. Local farming and food efforts normally support a sustainable food system, but looking at the challenges that come along with supporting local movements, it will also help to uncover who is getting left behind. Lastly, getting hands on experience in one’s community can be extremely beneficial when trying to better local food systems. I will be reviewing some of the things I have learned from my community based experiential learning project and how this experience has given me a better idea of the struggles and accomplishments encompassed within a community and their food.

The Issues within our Food System


There are so many different factors that impact our food system. Politics and the government play a major role in this and even though their impacts are more so seen at a global and national level, the effects trickle down and ultimately impact our local, community farming enterprises and food systems in general. The food movement has garnered quite a bit of attention within the last decade and has focused on attempts to derail “big agriculture” by supporting alternatives to industrial food production such as local, sustainable, organic, and small-scale practices. This food movement has positioned itself as the opponent to unfair, corporate domination of the food world, but in reality, is the food movement actually strengthening big agriculture?

Our industrial food system relies on the use of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides, and pesticides in order to maximize output. Genetically Modified organisms are often times involved as well, along with confined animal feeding operations and monocrop farms. Taking these large-scale agricultural operations down will be a major challenge since they are the ones that receive the most government funding, as they are seen to be providing the most product for sale at a time, this looks exceptionally good for our government and allows for the United States to potentially turn a profit, especially when it comes to exporting goods such as corn, wheat, and now, even commercially raised pork.

Another issue with industrial food is that the majority of their distribution channels are controlled by a few very large corporations, making it even more difficult for Americans to gain access to healthier food options or find alternatives. Large corporations make it even more difficult for sustainable, small scale, family farmers to make a living while providing healthier foods that are also positively impacting the environment. Big agricultural corporations that have money and power are able to influence our government and lobby for policies, as well as regulations that benefit large-scale production. This in turn allows for the growth and production of food into a complete business model that only focuses on profit and disregards food justice, health, and environmental factors.

Large scale operations like this dominate the farming and food industry and it becomes a tough situation that impacts our local food and farming systems directly. Operations like this can afford to keep the prices of their goods low. Despite the negative aspects of the product such as poor animal welfare and detrimental farming methods, there will always be a market for their product; specifically, targeting lower income populations. However, if the government could be less involved in funding these large agricultural operations and more involved in passing legislation, funding assistance and incentive programs for low income and/or high-risk individuals and families (such as the elderly and WIC mom’s) to gain access to healthier options, then maybe we can begin to modernize and modify the Farm Bill and other pieces of legislation that directly impact communities.


Issues of food sovereignty, which directly impacts the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, as well as their right to define their own food and agriculture systems are commonly seen throughout our food system today.

Often times, culture specific foods are hard to come by and access, especially in communities that already struggle with general food access and places deemed food deserts. This disproportionately disadvantages a select group of people, who more often than not are already faced with challenges that create hardships. “Ethnic groups maintain their cultural identities with their food practices, values, and beliefs and it is hard for people to change this when forced to eat foods outside their cultures as a result of difficult circumstances.” When a Muckleshoot Tribal member was asked to discuss the meaning of food sovereignty and the issues encompassed within it, the main takeaway that was received was “access to foods.” I have experienced this issue first hand during my community-based research project (which I completed in 2019), but I have also witnessed a way to bridge that gap.

The Bangladeshi community that has set roots in Hudson, NY was faced with food challenges first hand, especially because the majority of the families live in the 2nd ward. In order for these people to find culturally appropriate food, they have taken it into their own hands to grow it themselves. In the River City Urban Community Garden, you can find close to thirty plots belonging to Bangladesh families. The garden is located within a short walking distance from their homes as well. Here, you can see the vegetables that are grown in their home country, vegetables that they are proud of and comfortable working and cooking with as they are a part of their ethnic culture. The urban garden has opened up the opportunity for these families to overcome cultural challenges they were previously presented with in the food system. Unfortunately, it had to be done mostly on their own with not much help from external sources, but nevertheless, they are succeeding.

Indigenous populations have been and are currently being faced with cultural issues within the food system. An article published by an author named Coté says that indigenous populations have experienced a number of intense invasions that have had long lasting effects and detrimental outcomes on entire communities. Many of these events have been considered “ethnic and cultural genocide.” A majority of the inequalities faced today by indigenous people can be linked directly to colonization which resulted in culture loss. The forced assimilation that happened decades ago stripped many of their cultural identities, which also stripped them of their cultural connection with their ethnic foods. However, some of the foods that the indigenous peoples discovered, hunted, and gathered, and then traded can still be found amongst our food system today. Wild rice is one of the best examples of this.

A major challenge is to retain and respect traditional food knowledge that comes from these ethnically diverse and indigenous people and to continue to support a sustainable food system with food security and good governance. Recently, there has been concern and interest about the lack of documentation of indigenous and traditional food cultures. These are important in so many ways and also carry a legacy of food knowledge that they can then pass onto future generations.

A sustainable food system must encompass diversity, just like a sustainable farm does. Including culturally appropriate foods within our food system and communities will allow for this to happen. Education about ethnic foods can also be something to consider. In Valerie Segrest’s TED talk she states that indigenous people (specifically the Muckleshoot Tribe) believe that teaching by example and without a spoken word is the most powerful way of teaching. Maybe having the urban community garden that is growing culturally specific foods in the same space as a youth after school program is the perfect example of this.


Let’s face the facts; the greater majority of our food in the United States comes from farms that practice methods that are extremely detrimental to the environment and our ecosystem. There are so many different ways in which industrial agriculture and negligent practices negatively affect our environment. The way in which our environment is impacted depends upon a variety of different natural and human driven processes. According to the 2012 Agricultural Census, two million farms and ranches operate across the United States. Two thirds of those farms and ranches sell less than twenty-five thousand dollars’ worth of crops or livestock. To compare, there are about eighty thousand large farms across the Unites States, which represent only four percent of the total farm population, but they are responsible for two thirds of the agricultural production in our country today. These large industrialized operations are also responsible for detrimental environmental practices and unsustainable ways. This directly impacts our food system and the ability for it to become sustainable.

Over the past fifty years the increased use of mineral fertilizers has increased greenhouse gas emissions and deteriorated water supplies. The increase in greenhouse gas emissions can also result from burning fossil fuels in foods manufacturing process, as well as during the food distribution process. When considering livestock operations in general, there are so many factors that farmers must be aware of to attempt to work in sync with the environment and do all they can to prevent environmental harm; I know this first hand. Large industrial farms that produce beef, normally use a concentrated animal feeding operation or a CAFO. These operations are not only unfair to the animal, but they lead to regional air and water quality issues, especially when the animals waste is not properly managed. They also contribute to raising greenhouse gas emissions. Runoff is a major problem with these operations, which can cause food safety issues.

Small livestock farms must also be aware of the different environmental hazards. Rotational grazing methods should be implemented in order to increase soil and forage quality, as well as to decrease carbon emissions. In allowing for proper rest time on pasture, it can ensure regrowth, sometimes greater diversified regrowth of forage takes place as well. It can also decrease the amount of ammonia and methane released into the air and ground. This can positively impact the grazing animal, as well as birds and insects that call that area home. Rotational grazing can also decrease the chances of water contamination and runoff to an area. Best management practices that benefit the environment, at a small or large scale, must be considered as in the end, it does directly impact communities and our food system.

Conventional farming that uses large equipment has negative impacts on our environment as it disrupts the soils natural state and pollutes the air. Pesticides have been used now for thousands of years and are a huge threat to the health of our environment, animals, and people. The advent of synthetic pesticides, led to the rise of synthetic pesticide use, and increased crop yields as destructive pests were being destroyed. Pesticides are widely used to protect crops from insect damage and weed competition. Although pesticides have been known for increasing food production, their environmental impacts are devastating. They move through the air, sediment pathways in the ground, and in water. When a pesticide is applied, there is a high chance that it can drift through the air, in dust during wind or tilling, in sediment which is moved by runoff, rain, or irrigation. It also has been known to leech into groundwater. A group of scientists conducted a field study on pesticides and water pollution and discovered that they were found in ninety-seven percent of the samples collected from streams within agricultural areas.

The United States agricultural and food system relies on natural resources, specifically land and water. The availability of these natural resources can be affected by human decisions such as tilling techniques, grazing methods, and use of pesticides. With that being said, better management of our soils and water resources on these grazing lands, farms, and forests is needed. Conservation strategies are important to consider as well because these types of methods can reduce soil erosion, better water quality and conservation, and also work to rebuild or better wildlife habitats.

Benefits and Pitfalls of the Local Food Movement

The local food movement has gone from a growing movement to a major player in the national food industry. Many argue that this movement improves access to healthy, organic food while strengthening the local economy, and building community relationships. It also has brought about a desire to “know your farmer”, which allows for a greater intimacy with your food. Although this is all true, there are still some challenges within the “buy local” food movement that need to be addressed if we want to ensure a sustainable and fair food system for generations to come.

Considering the political, environmental, and cultural issues discussed earlier on in the paper, it is easy to connect them with reasons why buying local is beneficial. Purchasing directly from a farmer allows them to retain a greater portion of the “value added” costs that are typically captured by middlemen down the supply chain. In buying directly, it can actually help to sustain rural communities and preserve small farms. Buying more food locally is beneficial to the community. In other words, the money you spend remains in the local community. About sixty five percent of your dollar spent when buying local is kept within that community. If shopping at a large chain store such as Price Chopper, the store itself keeps only forty percent. Voting with your dollar, although many people do not have the freedom to do this, can actually support jobs in your hometown since small businesses are the largest employer. Getting restaurants, schools, and hospitals to buy locally and advertise it, can help to attract employees, patients, and customers, since many people like to know where their food is coming from.

In order to keep our food systems going and farmers in business, eating locally can help to preserve local and small-scale farmland. It is also beneficial to the environment as eating and buying locally reduces our carbon footprint because our food travels less miles. This in return, cuts down on fossil fuel consumption, air pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions. According to a USDA study, farmers who engage in direct marketing their product, were found to use more environmentally friendly practices, especially if customers are going directly to their farm.

Eating locally also supports improved nutrition, obesity prevention, increased desire to make healthier food choices, and reduces the risk of diet related illness because the food consumed is more nutritious, less processed, and fresher than non-local options. The unfortunate reality associated with this is that the majority of people within communities across the nation cannot afford to eat local products as they have higher price tags. Now, too, the phrase “local food” is immediately associated with higher prices, making it an intimidating label for many consumers. With this being said, low income communities are faced with struggles associated with increased obesity, increased malnutrition, and less food options in general. These inequalities present unfair challenges that have been on-going for years. In order to increase access and decrease injustice in our food system, community level change must occur.

Working Towards Justice in our Food System

There is a lot that needs to be done within our food system to achieve justice. Working in communities that specifically need improved access is an important place to start. Community gardens are a great way to not only give people access to healthy foods, but they also allow for a safe place for people to gather, learn from one another, and feel empowered to grow their own food. Community gardens are a great way to transform vacant lots into spaces that feed people. These gardens often times allow for food sovereignty to flourish.

Farmers markets, farm stands, mobile markets, and co-ops are also great ways for communities to gain access to local foods, however, the key to this is for assistance programs to be available at them. Programs like the Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program and the Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program are state funded and allow for low-income seniors and WIC families to receive monetary benefits that can be used on fruits and vegetables at a farmers’ market and/or farm stand within a state. SNAP benefits should also be considered as they are a way for people to shop for local and healthier options. Often times, there are supplemental assistance programs as well such as the Fresh Connect Checks program (here in NY). For every five dollars in SNAP benefits spent, the SNAP recipient will also receive a two dollar Fresh Connect Check that can be used on any SNAP eligible food item. These programs are important for communities to gain access to. Awareness that these programs exist is key, as well as education about how to use them to buy products, as well as where.

Teaching students how to grow their own food, the importance of eating healthy, cooking with fresh foods, and empowering them to know where their food comes from can also help to fight for food justice. Kids are change makers and giving them the confidence of knowing how to garden, how to prepare a meal, and how to eat well is key to succeeding in creating equality within our food system.


Our food system is arguably one of the most important systems on the planet. Although, it is an extremely complicated system, it is one that needs constant improvement in order to be sustainable. There are many issues that still need to be worked out within our food system in order for us to achieve justice, sovereignty, and sustainability. For now, start thinking about what change needs to happen amongst your own communities and what you can do. Small change like this is what propels larger, long-lasting change that will better communities and the environment not only nationally, but around the world.

Future Thought Leaders is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of rising Energy & Sustainability writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Karlee Shields holds a Masters degree in Sustainability and Sustainable Food Systems from Prescott College and currently works in alternative medicine.

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