Food Systems

The food system refers to the many steps and processes that food takes from cultivation and harvesting (planting seeds for fruits and vegetables, slaughtering an animal, etc) through disposal (composting, landfilling, etc). We describe the food system as the following components: production, processing and manufacturing, distribution, consumption, and disposal. Traditionally, the food system has been represented linearly with food disposal occurring in landfills alongside other solid waste materials. However, the food system is an excellent candidate for circular economy processes, which focuses on bringing waste back into the system as an input.  We can achieve this by using alternative methods of food disposal, such as composting or anaerobic digestion. This allows this waste to be funneled back into food production as a valuable source of nutrients.

Linear representation of steps of the food system
Linear representation of steps of the food system, beginning with production and ending with disposal.
Circular representation of Food Systems
Circular representation of steps of the food system, with food disposal feeding back into food production.

If you are part of an organization working in Tennessee’s food system and your organization is not reflected above, please contact Jenn Tribble at

There are many opportunities to improve upon food systems at each step to create a food system that is more sustainable and resilient.

Food system sustainability is a food system that balances the economic vitality of those working in the food system, the availability and accessibility of healthy, nutritious, and culturally appropriate food to those in the system, and the minimization of negative environmental impacts associated with the food system which threaten to degrade natural resources and stress other non-food systems. Opportunities to improve sustainability of food systems include:

  • Reduction or elimination of food deserts, which hinder an individual’s ability to access fresh and nutritious food
  • Soil management best practices to reduce erosion and improve carbon capture in soil
  • Water and energy conservation practices in food production
  • Responsible waste management and a shift away from landfilling organic material
  • Improvement of food system education to promote healthy, nutritious, and culturally appropriate food consumption

Food system resilience is a food system that can withstand shocks and stressors of many types while continuing to function comprehensively and appropriately. These shocks and stressors can include severe weather or an economic crash. Opportunities to improve resilience of food systems include:

  • Consideration of land use and the location for food production to focus on lands with high yield and low water stress
  • Exploration of food production methods that can withstand more extreme weather, like drought or prolonged heat
  • Developing technology to keep food fresh for longer periods of time
  • Diversifying crops such that a disease does not wipe out all crop production

Food systems are both local and global in scale, which means local and regional action should be taken based on that region’s needs and potential opportunities. We encourage communities to inventory and analyze their food systems to identify opportunities for action. This inventory could include:

  • Mapping all food system components – like farms, manufacturers, restaurants, grocery stores, and farmers markets – to see how they are distributed
  • Talking to local farmers and ranchers to see what they are experiencing and their biggest hurdles for food production
  • Meeting with health-focused community groups to learn about how to improve access to healthy, nutritious, and culturally appropriate food in your region
  • Understanding how food is disposed of and promoting a shift away from disposal in the landfill