15.2- A Fresh Perspective: Sustainable Food Systems

Learning Objective

  • Discuss some approaches to building a sustainable food system in your community.


The science of nutrition includes the study of how organisms obtain food from their environment. An ecosystem is defined as the biological and physical environments and their interactions with the community of organisms that inhabit those environments as well as the interactions among the organisms.


A major theme of sustainability is to ensure that the resources needed for human and environmental health will continue to exist. A healthy ecosystem, one that is maintained over time, is harmonious and allows for social and economic fulfillment for present and future generations. Nutritious foods come from our ecosystem and to ensure their availability for generations to come, it must be produced and distributed in a sustainable way. A sustainable food system does not just include the food and those who consume the food, but also those that produce the food, like farmers and fishermen, and those who process, package, distribute, and regulate food. Unfortunately, we have a long way to go to build a sustainable food system. The United Nations has developed seventeen goals as part of its Sustainable Development AgendaGoal 2 is Zero Hunger. See the targets for Goal 2 below:


2.1 By 2030, end hunger and ensure access by all people, in particular, the poor and people in vulnerable situations, including infants, to safe, nutritious and sufficient food all year round.

2.2 By 2030, end all forms of malnutrition, including achieving, by 2025, the internationally agreed targets on stunting and wasting in children under 5 years of age, and address the nutritional needs of adolescent girls, pregnant and lactating women and older persons.

2.3 By 2030, double the agricultural productivity and incomes of small-scale food producers, in particular women, indigenous peoples, family farmers, pastoralists and fishers, including through secure and equal access to land, other productive resources, and inputs, knowledge, financial services, markets and opportunities for value addition and non-farm employment.

2.4 By 2030, ensure sustainable food production systems and implement resilient agricultural practices that increase productivity and production, that help maintain ecosystems, that strengthen capacity for adaptation to climate change, extreme weather, drought, flooding, and other disasters and that progressively improve land and soil quality.

2.5 By 2020, maintain the genetic diversity of seeds, cultivated plants and farmed and domesticated animals and their related wild species, including through soundly managed and diversified seed and plant banks at the national, regional and international levels, and promote access to and fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the utilization of genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge, as internationally agreed.

2. An Increase investment, including through enhanced international cooperation, in rural infrastructure, agricultural research and extension services, technology development and plant and livestock gene banks in order to enhance agricultural productive capacity in developing countries, in particular, least developed countries.

2.B Correct and prevent trade restrictions and distortions in world agricultural markets, including through the parallel elimination of all forms of agricultural export subsidies and all export measures with equivalent effect, in accordance with the mandate of the Doha Development Round.

2.C Adopt measures to ensure the proper functioning of food commodity markets and their derivatives and facilitate timely access to market information, including on food reserves, in order to help limit extreme food price volatility.



The Challenges

The most prominent challenge to building a sustainable food system is to make food available and accessible to all.  Food security in America is defined as the “access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life.” As of 2017, 16.8 percent of households had very low or low food security.1 Worldwide, 820.8 million (10.9 %) people are undernourished.2

Another challenge to building a sustainable food system is to supply high-quality nutritious food. The typical American diet does not adhere to dietary guidelines and recommendations, is unhealthy, and thus costs this country billions of dollars in healthcare. The average American diet contains too many processed foods with added sugars and saturated fats and not enough fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Moreover, the average American takes in more kilocalories each day than ever before. This shift of the population toward unhealthy, high-calorie diets has fueled the obesity and diet-related disease crisis in this nation. Overall the cost of food for the average American household has declined since the 1970s; however, there has been a growth of “food deserts.” A food desert is a location that does not provide access to affordable, high-quality, nutritious food. One example of a “food desert” is in Philadelphia, PA. The lower socioeconomic status of the people who live in this city does not foster the building of grocery stores in the community. Therefore, the most accessible foods are the cheap, high-caloric ones sold in convenience stores. As a result, people who live in Philadelphia have higher incidences of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.

1 “US Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service. “Food Security in the United States: Overview.” Last updated on September 5, 2018. Accessed June 21, 2019.

2 F.A.O. of the U.N. Food Security and Nutrition around the World 2018. Accessed June 21, 2019.



A third challenge to building a sustainable food system is to change how we produce, process, and distribute food. Large agribusiness, complex industrial processing, and massive retail conglomerations distort the connection we have between the food on our plate and where it came from. More food is being produced in this nation than ever before, which might sound good at first. However, some factors that have contributed to higher food production include using genetically engineered plants, excessive use of herbicides and pesticides, and the selective promotion of only a few crops by the policy of crop-specific subsidies (money given to farmers by the federal government). The subsidies are given toward the support of only about eight crops, most notably corn and soybeans. This policy diminishes the variety of crops, decreases biodiversity among crops, and supports large agribusiness while disadvantaging small- and medium-sized farms. Additionally, the whole system of food production, processing, and distribution is lengthy, requiring a great deal of energy and fossil fuels, and promotes excessive use of chemicals to preserve foods during transportation and distribution. In fact, the current US food system used approximately 22 percent of the energy in this country based on 2007 data and is responsible for at least 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.3

3 Canning, P. et al. “Energy Use in the US Food System.” US Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Report, no. ERR-94 (March 2010). Accessed June 21, 2019.


Solutions to the Challenges

While these challenges are daunting there are many potential solutions that are gaining momentum in the United States. The APHA advocates expanding the infrastructure for locally grown food, improving access to healthy and local food for low-income Americans, providing education on food origin and production, building up the livelihoods of local farmers, and using sustainable farming methods. Philadelphia is currently a “food desert,” but many organizations are working to change the face of food delivery and access in the city. Some of these organizations include The Food Trust and the Philadelphia Department of Public Health. Visit their websites for more information.


Tools for Change

Ten Steps You Can Take to Help Build a Sustainable Food System in Your Community


  1. Eat a “low-carbon diet.”. This is one where the foods that you eat require less energy and fuel to produce, process and distribute than other foods. Visit Eat Low Carbon’s website to learn more and analyze your own diet.
  2. Join a community-based farmers’ market.
  3. Have a garden at home and join a network of home gardeners. Find out how by visiting the USDA website on gardening: USDA The Peoples Garden and the National Garden Association. Get involved with Penn State’s Student Farm and/or Community Garden. In addition, many of the Commonwealth Campuses have student farms of their own.
  4. Compost your food and garden waste. Learn some of the essentials of composting by visiting Penn State Extension’s Making and Using Compost webpage.
  5. Buy local food—make at least 10 percent of your food purchases local and share what you know about local food with friends and family.
  6. Pool your resources with family and friends to purchase locally.
  7. Drink tap water instead of bottled water.
  8. When purchasing foods, choose the ones with less packaging.
  9. Support state initiatives that support local farmers and build infrastructure to sell more healthy food.
  10. When dining out, ask what nutrients are in the food and where the food labels are on the menu (to encourage the restaurants to provide nutrition information). Also, visit the restaurant’s website as the information may be posted there with a space for comments.

These are some great steps to build a more sustainable food system for you and your family, friends, neighborhood, community, city, state, nation, and world. For more solutions, watch Video 1.7.1.


Mom's Vegetable Garden

Figure 15.2.2: You can do your part in building a sustainable environment by literally starting in your own backyard. “Mom’s Vegetable Garden” by Chiot’s Run is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Video 1.7.1: Sustainable Food Systems

An educational video on sustainable food systems.

ENG reporting on how and where students can learn about sustainable agriculture, sustainable food systems, and education in sustainability.


Key Takeaways

  • Sustainability promotes the development of conditions under which people and nature can interact harmoniously. It is based upon the principle that everything needed for human survival depends upon the natural environment. A sustainable food system includes not only the food and those who consume the food, but also those who produce food (such as farmers and fishermen), and process, package, distribute, and regulate food.
  • The challenges to building a sustainable food system are many, from providing affordable and accessible food to supplying nutritious, high-quality, low-cost food regardless of socioeconomic status, to changing the ways foods are produced, processed, and distributed.
  • There are many solutions to the challenges of building a sustainable flood system. Some of the solutions are to: expand the infrastructure for locally grown food, improve access to healthy and local food for low-income Americans, provide education on food origin and production, build up the livelihoods of local farmers, and use sustainable farming methods.
  • You can take action individually and locally to help build a sustainable food system.


Discussion Starters

  1. Share with each other in the classroom some of the things you might have already done to help build a sustainable food system in your community.
  2. Form debate teams in the classroom and have a formal debate on the topic of the regulation of food. One side must present the reasons it is beneficial for the government to regulate food. The other side will argue the reasons it is better for people to grow their food locally.



  • Leslie Pillan, M.S., Sarah Walter, P.L.A.


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Nutrition 100 Nutritional Applications for a Healthy Lifestyle Copyright © by Lynn Klees and Alison Borkowska is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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