Why I believe that food systems do not exist?  

Fill in the blank:

The ______ system is broken, and it needs to be fixed.

I hear this mantra about something each week. As a society, the United States of America has so many broken systems it cannot function. Yet, somehow it does stumble along. One of the broken systems in the country is the food system. Only yesterday a conference in California concluded. Its focus was to align “the food system” for safety in efforts to decrease waste. A noble goal with great speakers! But what is the system they are discussing? My point is that ‘system’ is a nebulous term that covers everything in a certain area. My discussion today focuses on what we mean by system. Are there better terms? Can we change any of these systems? Diagramming the complex interactions that occur in what we call systems helps understanding. I turn my attention to postharvest handling of fresh fruits and vegetables.

fresh peppers, celery, cucumbers and eggplant
Fresh vegetables on display at a local supermarket

There is a discipline that studies systems applying systems thinking to complex operations. Most entities we call systems do not qualify. Systems thinking can help us understand these entities. Understanding provides a means to identify problems and develop solutions. In a post earlier this month I described the characteristics of a true system

  • Without management and control, handling in chains is not a system.
  • A system has an owner, an established purpose, and boundaries. The whole system has unique properties that none of its parts perform on their own. It exhibits flows of energy, information and materials. (1)

I will analyze each criterion for “the American food system.”

Management and control. No single entity, government or corporate, manages “the food system.” A market exchanges food for money in most cases within the market. Networks of overlapping chains distribute food to supermarkets, restaurants, and even farmers markets. Food businesses operate within a web of interactions that defies simple diagrams. FDA and USDA regulate the food industry for food fraud and safety. Other agencies regulate price fixing and many other issues within the industry. There is no controlling agency that governs food distribution in the country. Where would we look to find a body to manage and control food from seed to plate? Government? A consortium of food companies? The social justice movement? An international organization? None of those options appeal to me.

An owner, established purpose, and boundaries. There are many owners within “the food system.” Owners run independent stores, restaurants, chains, and large corporations. These owners plug their operation into the market. They develop a network to achieve their objectives. As their businesses grow, they get caught in an ever-expanding web. The established purpose for most of these operations is to make money. Food banks have an established purpose to feed the hungry. Social service organizations seek to improve the healthiness of the food. Low-income families deserve particular attention. No unifying purpose encompasses “the system.” Could we put boundaries around corporate distribution of food? OK, but to what end? Can profits serve as a purpose to declare it a system? Who would manage and control it?

Energy, information and material flows. Energy flows through supply, cold, and value chains. Food chains need energy to grow, harvest, and transport crops. Cold chains need energy to maintain proper temperatures and relative humidity. Value chains need energy to collect data and maintain quality. Conserving energy while maintaining value of the food represents a delicate balance.

Information flows from each link back to the source. In a postharvest chain, consumers and produce managers report on quality at the point of sale. Reports of a problem at any link in a value chain provide an opportunity to refine the chain. Cooperation between the links leads to a better experience by the consumer. Operators at links who make corrections must receive adequate compensation.

Material flows forward from source to the marketplace. Supply chains push consistent, unchanging food from Point A to Point X. A can of beans or other shelf-stable food doesn’t need special attention. Perishable foods like fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats need a cold chain.. The freshness clock is ticking. Higher temperatures speed up spoilage and can lead to a safety hazard. Keeping frozen foods frozen is necessary to maintain quality and safety. Consumers pull foods through a value chain that emphasizes consumer satisfaction. Fresh foods need a value chain to meet those expectations.

Systems problems looking for solutions. Where do we go from here? Stan Prussia identified three problems that could use systems thinking to develop solutions. He directed his attention to loss and waste of fresh fruits and vegetables. He also approached low per capita consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables. Then he turned to the problem of low income by farmers. Tune in next week for his take on the last two problems. Let’s focus on the problem of loss and waste. Loss of foods occurs before it reaches the market. Crop losses occur in the field. Waste occurs at the market or in the home.

The approach to loss and waste of fresh fruits and vegetables could include:

  1. Identify all causes of crop loss in the field,
  1. Develop techniques to reduce these losses,
  1. Identify links in the chain between field and market that incur the most losses,
  1. Provide economic incentives to decrease losses at each of these critical links,
  1. Analyze delivery patterns to recipients of fresh items,
  1. Assess inventory management practices of each recipient,
  1. Identify steps at retail that contribute to waste,
  1. Learn practices with greatest waste in the home, and
  1. Promote the sale of items that decrease waste in the home.

Why does the use of “the food system” matter? OK, so we don’t deal with real systems. Big deal! As long as we fix the brokenness who cares? The problem is that calling a system broken doesn’t do anything to fix it. Too often, the broken “food system” reveals many problems but few workable alternatives. Either solutions are not offered or a single solution will solve everything. It is not that easy. Careful reflection needs to focus on the market, network, or web. Where are the problem points? Can different parties agree to cooperate? Will chains reward those parties willing to change for their efforts? Are proposed solutions workable?

In the name of “food systems” that are not real systems, there is some systems thinking going on. Priya Fielding-Singh complains about “the food system” in How the Other Half Eats. She presents a detailed list of changes she would make to help low-income families eat a healthier diet. Her plan shows real systems thinking. I agree with many of her recommendations. It is unfortunate that most suggestions are not possible in today’s political environment. Looking at the program of the conference in Davis, the topic narrows the discussion to food safety and food waste. The focus is narrow enough to use systems thinking to develop meaningful solutions. Francesca Zampollo has developed a program in Food Design Thinking DIY. It seems right up my alley, but I resist buying the book available on Amazon for $249.

The upcoming White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health offers promise. Will it engage thought-leaders from various viewpoints in serious discussion? Will it involve true systems thinking? Or will the conference descend into a cacophony of disparate voices? Will only the loudest and least malleable persons gain center stage? Only time will tell.

Bottom line. “System” is a perfect term to use for someone wishing to be vague without developing solutions. Better terms include market, network, or web. In a market the exchange of money is the underlying purpose of all transactions. A network explores the complexity of activities and steps within these transactions. A web identifies all the explicit and implicit interconnectedness between interfaces. Simple changes within a market, network, or web can lead to unintended consequences. We should be careful not to make the situation worse rather than better. Improved distribution of fresh fruits and vegetables is possible. We can start by using systems thinking within existing value chains.

Next week: How can we get Americans to eat more fruits and vegetables?



(1)  Aggarwal, D., R.L. Shewfelt, and S.E. Prussia, 2022. Systems approaches for postharvest handling of fresh produce. Postharvest Handling: A Systems Approach 17-49.

2 thoughts on “Why I believe that food systems do not exist?  

  1. Hi Rob,
    I believe that the food system is not broken, but the goodness and righteousness in political system around the globe is broken. I am very sad and unfortunate for all current leaders. They have not been truth


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