Food systems: Where do we fit?

Cover image by Edible Manhattan

by Claudia Gascoyne

“The industrial eater has come to expect strawberries 12 months of the year; tomatoes in January; apples that have been cleaned, sliced and bagged; and dinner entrees pre-cooked and sold in individual, microwaveable portions. It takes a globalized, high-energy and large-scale food chain to meet the expectations of such a consumer. By the same token, building a local and sustainable food system will require a very different kind of consumer” - Michael Pollan

There is one thing that everyone on the planet has in common: we all need to eat.

In Australia, most of us eat three times a day. And each time we sit down for a meal, we are silently and unknowingly placing a vote. As is the case for political elections, each and every vote represents the values that we have and the future that we envisage. It is a signal or a message that says “this is what I want the world to look like”. The vote we place when we choose the food we wish to consume sends a message from us, the consumers, to the food system we exist in. But first, let’s take a step back and learn about what exactly the food system is, and where we fit within it.

Most food systems are made up of seven key players.

Wikipedia will tell you that the first key player in the cycle of the food system is food production, meaning the growth, harvesting, and packing of the food we eat. Next up is the processing of our food. This might mean turning corn into corn flour, soy beans into soy milk, or chicken into chicken nuggets.

Eventually, the food is transported and distributed all over the state, country, and sometimes even world, where it finds its way to the market to be purchased. Meanwhile, marketing experts are working hard to determine exactly how to make the consumers want the food products. Because the whole point of the food system is for the food to be consumed. We all need to eat.

And lastly, the leftover food that never makes it from market to mouth is either wasted or recycled.

However, we’d like to argue that the first key player in this cycle is, in fact, the consumer. After all, the remaining players within the food system all work for a consumer’s wants and needs. whatever the consumer’s vote may be, the rest of the food system will follow. If the consumer uses their buying power to vote for the convenience of fast food over fresh fruit and vegetables, the producers and distributors of the food, along with those who sell it, will pay attention and modify their role to suit the needs and desires of the consumer. Because the food system is financed and fuelled by the choices of the consumer.

By reframing our perception of the food system to put us – the consumers – at the centre of the portrait, we can begin to comprehend the power that we have in shaping the world we live in.

To understand this power, we must first understand just how much influence the food system has upon far-reaching facets of our lives on this planet.

Our environment is just one of many such facets that is heavily influenced by the food system. Given that the food we eat either relies on the land or is grown from the land, the way we do so has massive impacts upon our environment. In a similar sense, our environment dictates to a certain extent how and what we grow or produce, as well as the quality of our food. The same goes for the distribution and eventual waste of our food; the environment is directly affected, whether it be through greenhouse gas emissions from transportation or land pollution depending on where our food waste ends up.

The food system is also integral to the health of our communities. Failures within the food system, whether it be within the production phase or the marketing phase, can lead to poor health outcomes. In Australia, we are witnessing such outcomes right now, with an increase in obesity and chronic disease as we increase the amount of highly processed, high sugar foods we consume.

There are many other facets of our society heavily influenced by our food system – our social, political and economic climates just to name a few.

When we put into perspective the power the consumer has in dictating the food system, and the multitude of other systems that shape our lives, it forces us to reconsider our own behaviour, nudging us towards better choices. We have the power to make choices that ensure a healthy society and a healthy planet, for now and years to come. So make every vote count.

Join us on Monday 26th November 2018 for a VicHealth x SDF Health Promotion Insights event - ‘ The Power of Food’ where we will delve deep into the reasons why we eat what we eat, and explore how food can unite people to push for change and reclaim the power of food. Click here for more details.