How to Build a Sustainable Food System

bunsundesigns March 5, 2016

Disappointingly, however, that is not the food system that exists.

It’s common to hear conversations about the problems with our “broken” food system that blame one culprit or indicate that there is one solution to potentially “fix” the myriad problems. In his book “Fair Food,” Oran B. Hesterman aptly points out that depending on who is speaking, the “problem with food” can be any of a number of things: pesticides, corporate agriculture, bad policy, too much processed food, soda machines in schools, genetically modified organisms, food deserts, subsidies, lack of food labeling, migrant labor, soil erosion, “Big Ag” lobbyists, unfair treatment of farmworkers, and more.

They are all correct.

In October of 2014, the James Beard Foundation hosted its fifth annual Food Conference. It brought together many of the most forward-thinking leaders currently focusing on food-systems change. On day one of the conference, Mark Bittman, the (now former) food writer for The New York Times, opened a conversation with the statement, “In order to change food, we have to change everything.”

He, too, is correct.


Today there are an estimated 793 million people worldwide who are chronically undernourished. Most of these people do not know where or how they will get their next meal. In the US alone, in 2014, there were 48.1 million Americans who lived in food-insecure households; of those Americans, 15.3 million were children.

Allow me to repeat that: 15.3 million children in the US don’t know where they will get their next meal, or if they will get one at all. When was the last time you wondered if there would be anything for you to eat for your next meal?

Worse still, a child born in America today has a 1-in-3 chance of eventually being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. For a child of color, that number jumps to 1 in 2.

In Washington, DC, our nation’s capital, there are two neighborhoods that are eight miles apart. The difference between the average life expectancies in these neighborhoods is 16 years. The cause of this difference is not crime or disaster: it is diet-related illness. Those in predominantly white, affluent neighborhoods have access to the means to procure, prepare, and eat food that nourishes them. By contrast, those in the poorer, predominantly black neighborhoods of DC are having their lives cut short because they do not have access to the same kind of nourishing, healthy, sustainable food. There are many components to food access: geographic access, related to food deserts; financial access, in terms of healthy food being affordable; cultural access to having food that is appropriate for the communities in which it is being consumed; social access promoting the preparation and consumption of healthy food; and much more. Unfortunately, this food access challenge, one of many symptoms of our broken system, is not unique to DC. Poverty and poor health are a vicious, reinforcing cycle.

Here in the US, we have spent the last 300+ years building what has become our modern-day system. It started by using forced labor to work land that colonizers claimed as their own. With the Industrial Revolution, the system became capable of transporting food over long distances, enabling people to move to and thrive in cities and have fewer people produce enough food for the masses. After World War II, many munitions factories and chemical weapons producers became involved in industrial agriculture — producing tractors rather than tanks, tools rather than guns, and fertilizers and pesticides rather than war chemicals.

The US began to produce so much food that there was a surplus, and we began to sell the excess on the global market at prices that smallholder farmers in developing countries could not compete with. In an effort to help them compete, we have started exporting our model of food production, which is based on heavy chemical inputs and unmeasured externalized costs.

Meanwhile, not only are we sicker as a nation than we ever have been, but our industrial methods of food production are responsible for polluting our air, water, and soils, while at the same time reducing biodiversity. Our planet is warming at a rate that we can only hope to slow down, at best, in order to make the impending catastrophic changes manageable for our species — despite the ecological collapse of others. All in the name of “cheap” food.

The most recent dietary guidelines promoted by the United States Department of Agriculture include a plate of 50 percent fruits and vegetables. Yet our most recent farm bill appropriates 64 percent of its subsidies to corn, soybeans, and other grain, and 0.45 percent to fruits and vegetables. It is no wonder, then, that a burger and fries cost $4 and a healthy salad is $8. What would our food system look like if we aligned our policies and corresponding financial support to the nutritional guidelines we promote?

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, there are an estimated 500 million family farms on the planet. On average, each of those farms has five people working on it. That means that roughly one-third of the human species works on smallholder farms worldwide. And yet we are actively trying to sell them a model that is currently making us and our planet sick — to the point where the future, if we continue on this path, does not have a healthy prognosis.


If we are going to fix food, we have to fix everything. This is what makes food not just a personal or political issue: it makes it a social justice issue. We cannot have an honest conversation about food until we have honest conversations about racism, classism, and sexism. We cannot talk about new solutions until we talk about the inequalities rife in politics, health care, education, or global trade agreements. We cannot propose ideas about how to feed the world until we acknowledge the perverse incentives created by short-term profit motives, the havoc wreaked by externalized costs, and how rapid climate change is going to upend food production as we know it. If we continue to approach food as if there is a one-size-fits-all solution for all communities, then we will continue to perpetuate these problems. Thankfully, there are a rapidly growing number of people who are taking back the food system and creating solutions that work with and for the communities in which they live.

“If we are going to fix food, we have to fix everything. This is what makes food not just a personal or political issue: it makes it a social justice issue.”

There are many others. Perhaps the most powerful group of people, however, are those who have not taken action yet. Everyone can do something to move toward rethinking what our food system could and should look like. What that something is depends on the individual; plant something, grow something, shop at a farmers market, advocate for a farmers market if your community doesn’t have one, vote for leaders who support better food policy, bring the food discussion to schools, and if nothing else, try to cook more. People tend to use a lot less high-fructose corn syrup, xantham gum, and monosodium glutamate when they prepare their own food.

For my part, I am humbled and honored to be able to commit my life to building a more equitable food system — after all, if we want to fix food, we have to fix everything. It will take decades to change the system, but if we’re going to have equitable access to sustainable, real, healthy food, we must work together to build something that will nourish the minds, bodies, and souls of future generations.

And maybe, just maybe, we can save our planet in the process.

Tom McDougall is a food systems activist based in Washington, DC. He founded 4P Foods, a Benefit Corporation, in 2014 in an effort to build a more equitable food system. Tom likes big ideas, collaborating with passionate people, camping, and eating kohlrabi. He can be contacted at [email protected].

4 individuals making a difference


RONNIE WEBB AND JOELLE ROBINSON, FOUNDERS OF THE GREEN SCHEME, are working to bring access to healthy food to low-income neighborhoods in Washington, DC. They work closely with members of different communities within the city to create solutions specific to their needs. They help establish urban community gardens, offer social entrepreneurship training and mentoring, provide nutrition and fitness classes, and more. They are empowering these communities to take back their right to healthy food by creating long-term solutions designed by and for local people.


NAVINA KHANNA, CO-FOUNDER AND FIELD DIRECTOR OF LIVE REAL, has committed her life to building a more just and sustainable food system. From her base in Oakland, CA, she uses the tools of community organizing, personal empowerment and grassroots activism from other social justice movements to build a more cohesive food movement in local, regional, and national food communities. She is advocating loudly for the idea that we can rebuild our relationships with one another, and with our planet, by rebuilding our relationship with food.


DANIELLE NIERENBERG, THROUGH HER ORGANIZATION FOOD TANK, is “building a global community for safe, healthy, nourished eaters.” Nierenberg and her team find and highlight innovative, sustainable ideas for alleviating hunger, obesity, and poverty around the world. She is organizing people and networks to not only be part of the conversation, but to take action on building a more just and equitable food system.

Climate Action / Stakeholder Capitalism
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