What is food system development?

The Food System Development Program (FSDP) is a program housed within the Agriculture and Natural Resources Extension branch of Cooperative Extension. Its purpose is to secure and manage internal and external funding to support Cooperative Extension’s role in developing food systems in Wisconsin.

Defining Food Systems

We use the term “food system” to capture the complex combination of people, natural resources, capital and technologies that produce and provide food for a population in a selected geographical area. The food system that feeds Milwaukee, for instance, stretches around the globe but has a concentration of activity in around the city.

Of the people involved, we especially mean the family farms and other privately-owned businesses that grow, process, distribute, prepare and market food to intermediaries and consumers. The private sector also includes trade associations that promote the interests of farmers, processors, distributors, retailers and restaurants, as well as non-profit organizations that distribute food to people in need and provide other essential services.

Public sector actors also play a critical role in food systems by regulating and supporting private industry and organizations. And the staff at universities, colleges and K-12 schools contribute to many long-term impacts through their research, education, training and outreach.

Of course, the people who purchase and consume foods in a particular place have a strong influence on the system that serves them. In a market economy their ability to purchase the food they want creates the demand that attracts the supply. And what they want is a factor of their cultural heritage, effective marketing, and what they know to be good and available.

And if that isn’t complicated enough, food systems also overlap with other basic spheres of social and commercial life. For instance, the health care and health insurance industries are directly impacted by the habits of food consumption. Poor nutrition creates customers for medical products and services, and the resulting costs are widely distributed. And the of course the environment is also affected by food systems at the local level and through cumulative contributions of greenhouse gases and other externalized effects.

Developing Food Systems 

By development we mean private and public efforts and investments that transform food systems to improve our lives and our communities. And while the food system that serves a given community operates at a national and global scale, the FSDP focuses within our state’s borders because that is where we can most effectively support development. That includes support for Wisconsin businesses that market products outside of the state, because those sales are critical to their success.

To understand how communities can improve their food systems, we have followed the lead of our colleagues in the Community Food System (CFS) Team. This interdisciplinary community-of-practice was formed in 2011 to unite resources and expertise on food system topics across four major program areas of Cooperative Extension:

  • Agricultural and Natural Resources Extension
  • Community, Natural Resource and Economic Development
  • Family Living
  • 4-H Youth Development

To guide its work, the CFS Team adopted and modestly adapted a set of values that were introduced in 2010 by the Community Food Security Coalition in a publication called Whole Measures for Community Food Systems. The six original values appear in the graphic below, designed by the Community and Regional Food Systems Project.

Six Values of Whole Measures

In their strategic framework for planning and evaluation of food systems programming, Cooperative Extension’s CFS Team drafted its own definitions for each these values and added a seventh–Innovative Collaboration. While that framework is a work-in-progress, we find it essential to our work because it promotes a holistic and interdisciplinary approach to food system development.

While the values above may guide our work, ultimately any decisions about transforming food systems throughout Wisconsin must be made and carried out by private businesses, organizations, public agencies and over 5.7 million food-consuming residents.

To that end, the Food System Development Program will work with private and public partners as we “teach, learn, lead and serve, connecting people with the University of Wisconsin, and engaging with them in transforming” food systems that serve our communities.