Thoughts After 22 Years of Consumption and Organizing a Food System Symposium

The following two tabs change content below.
Haley Rhodes

Haley Rhodes

Haley Rhodes is interested in how food systems contribute to peacebuilding. She has conducted research on nutrition and food security in both rural Guatemala and North Carolina and will work with the Government of Colombia’s Department of Social Prosperity in Bogotá on rural development before starting a healthcare consulting job in Washington DC. Haley majored in public health and Hispanic studies at Davidson College and plans to pursue a Ph.D. in public health systems.

4496192Sarah Dwyer is passionate about developing a multidisciplinary understanding of the ways that food affects health through her work with a community-led nutrition education program that she helped start and through her research, including an epigenetics project at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Sarah plans to pursue an M.D. after finishing her M.S. in Nutrition at Columbia’s Institute of Human Nutrition.


Profile Picture

Philip Yu’s curiosity for the food system began with his upbringing in Los Angeles and witnessing the disparity in food access. Philip has served as an assistant Program Coordinator for two years at Sow Much Good, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing food access to minority communities in Charlotte, North Carolina. Philip majored in Environmental Studies and minored in Anthropology at Davidson College and is interested in social entrepreneurship in food access and public education.

meHaley Rhodes is interested in how food systems contribute to peacebuilding. She has conducted research on nutrition and food security in both rural Guatemala and North Carolina and will work with the Government of Colombia’s Department of Social Prosperity in Bogotá on rural development before starting a healthcare consulting job in Washington DC. Haley majored in public health and Hispanic studies at Davidson College and plans to pursue a Ph.D. in public health systems.

During the fall of 2015, a few of us students at Davidson College began organizing what would become a two-day symposium on the U.S. food system. We hoped to deepen our and other students’ awareness about the confusing realities of why 15.3 million U.S. children are food insecure in one of the most wealthy nations, why obesity rates have stabilized at such high levels, and why the word “agriculture” seems dirtily tinged and old-fashioned to today’s youth.

We soon realized that the food system is not only complicated but suffers from systemic injustice. Food, it turns out, has never been just a way to nourish bodies. Food organizes the majority of human activity; it is a tool that can be used to unite and to remind us of our common humanity, but food can also be a tool to control and divide.


Food security, or the guarantee of sufficient healthy food that allows for an active life, is of the utmost importance in our interconnected world. While today’s challenge is fair distribution rather than insufficient food production, experts worry that there will not be enough food to go around as the population is expected to increase by one-third by 2050. And everyone, it seems, has a different opinion on how to feed every mouth.

The symposium allowed us to look at the food system for what it truly is: interdisciplinary and multifaceted. Through conversations with farmers, activists, academics, and policymakers, we came to a few conclusions:

The food you eat is complex. Do you know the component parts of the food system? Most people (including us before our academic studies) could not fathom the steps involved as food travels from the ground or production factory to our tables. See below for a short breakdown of how your food gets to you, the consumer.

 Components of a Food System 

Production: In one way or another, anything you have eaten can be traced to a farmer that grew the crop or slaughtered the livestock. Even if it’s a processed food item, it has to be produced by some sort of farmer, hunter, or gatherer.

Processing: There are three main types of food processing: minimally processed, processed, and highly processed food ingredients. Food that needs very little modification, like washing or cutting, and has little impact to the produce’s nutrition, is considered minimally processed. Highly processed foods, like ice cream, tend to have corn syrup and other preservatives and additives. Most highly processed food is high in calories, fat, sodium, and low in nutrients and vitamins. Finally, processed food ingredients include food products that are incorporated into other foods, like corn syrup or flour.

Distribution: After processing, the product is shipped to distribution centers nationwide before being sent on to urban hubs without an agricultural community. Preservatives allow for food to travel thousands of miles without spoiling.

Retail: Food products are reallocated to stores of various sizes, ranging from Walmart to the local corner store. Retail also plays the important role of recognizing and influencing food trends. Large retail stores that decide to stock previously niche food like organic and gluten-free encourages the production of alternative food while allowing more consumers to have access to them.

Consumption: You have an amazing range of food available to you at your local grocery store, from a bag of potato chip to pre-made sandwiches to vegetables and fruits. Unfortunately, not all consumers and grocery stores are created equally. Some consumers live in places called food deserts where they cannot access fresh produce in their neighborhood. In these environments, residents have limited access to healthy food, making them more vulnerable to chronic health conditions like diabetes and heart problems.

The food you eat has important implications – not just for your own body, but for the bodies of others. Here are some ways your food choices impact you as well as others:

Supporting large corporations is a vote for quantity over quality.

  • In these large corporations, there can be a lack of quality and oversight. Additionally, they may encourage the exploitation of workers. We must not starve and abuse the hands that pick our food.
  • Food choices can have negative impacts on the environment, which then impacts health on many levels. Certain foods, especially animal products like lamb, beef, and cheese, have extremely high greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram. In fact, beef alone accounts for almost 15% of greenhouse gas emissions globally.
  • Small scale farms are often much better for the environment because they do not cause as much damage to the soil and surrounding communities.
    • Using your purchasing power to buy highly processed foods, which unfortunately are often the less expensive choices, propagates our system’s unhealth.
      • Consuming processed foods is correlated with obesity, which is associated with negative impacts on individuals’ health and also to the health of future generations.
      • Some studies have found that not just what a mother eats, but also what a father eats before conception affects a child’s risk for disease. A 2013 study found that children of obese fathers have different epigenetic markers (chemical modifications to DNA that may affect gene expression) on the insulin-type growth factor 2 gene. Epigenetic modifications to this gene have been correlated to several cancers.


It’s time to recognize all the stakeholders in the food system. Let’s break it down, because more often than not, people are forgotten.

  • Food workers
    • One of the worst kept secrets in this country is the poor treatment of farm workers, especially migrant workers. The documentary Food Chains shows the exploitation of migrant workers in Immokalee, Florida, and Napa Valley, California. These farmers travel to the states for seasonal jobs and lack legal protection. As a result, migrant farmers often earn less than $12,000 annually and are threatened by sexual assault, poor working conditions, and financial debt. Most American farmers face many risks too, from financial to personal, and are not well supported when facing potential problems like crop loss and physical harms.
  • Academics and policymakers
  • NGOs
    • There are a variety of local, national, and international NGOs that focus on issues such as domestic and international hunger, increasing farmers/farmland, food access/security, and nutrition education.
  • Private sector
    • Food is an important commodity in which the private sectors speculates and invests. The pros: private sector encourages technology adoption, strong quantitative analysis and legitimacy, and funding. The cons: small-scale farmers cannot compete and increased monopolies over seeds and similar markets.
  • Government
    • Agriculture is an important contributor to GDP and overall development. As a result, many governments provide subsidies to farmers to produce certain staples, like wheat and corn. In 2014, the US government passed the Farm Bill, increasing funding for farmers safety net, research, conservation, nutrition, and rural development.
  • Consumers

Lessons Learned from the Symposium

  • The U.S. needs a national food security policy. Congress recently approved the Global Food Security Act, but as former director of the UN World Food Programme, Catherine Bertini, pointed out, the U.S. lacks our own initiative to take a critical look at the coordination problems in our own food system. Currently, our system leaves kids hungry while we simultaneously waste 40% of our food supply each year.
  • The global connection. U.S. policy has large consequences for the global food system. We saw U.S. subsidization policies cause starvation in Haiti and Mexico. But it is not the U.S.’s role to feed the world, but to rather to, when necessary, provide communities with the tools to sustainably nourish themselves as Dr. Bob Lawrence, founder of Johns Hopkins’ Center for a Livable Future reminded us.
  • We cannot think of compromise as a dirty word. While food issues are, on a foundational level, influenced by political leanings and agendas, the ethics of food quality and access ultimately must propel the decisions made by our government. Policy decisions must be motivated by what is best for the wellness of our communities and our environment. Frustrated by current food policy? Write to your congressional representatives to have your voice heard.
  • Above all, communities must be centered as the agent. As paraphrased from a lecture by Smita Narula, NYU Law’s former director of the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, we are both problem and solution to the food system by forming communities that are willing to adaptively change. Communities must have the ability to design a local food system that accounts for context and culture.

Though our local, national, and global food systems are not adequate to feed the world sustainably, we have an opportunity to examine the various factors that influence our food system. Just as participants were encouraged to do at Harvard Law’s “Just Food?” conference, ask yourself “am I operating in the dominant paradigm when looking at food” and “what type of food justice movement do I want to be apart of?”

We have the opportunity to think about who benefits from our food system and to make a commitment to the pursuit of equity.