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Teaching the Food System

A Project of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future


Why Teach the Food System?

“How we eat determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used.”
   – Wendell Berry, farmer and author

We are all connected to food

We all experience food, if for no other reason than because we all consume it. Our relationship with food, however, extends far beyond the act of eating.

Food takes a complex journey from its origins on farms, ranches, rivers, oceans and other sources to consumers’ plates. Along the way, it passes through the hands of producers (including farmers, ranchers and fishermen), processors, transporters, warehouse operators, retailers, consumers and waste handlers.

The stages from field to plate do not occur in a vacuum. They depend upon parts of the natural environment, such as soil, fresh water and countless organisms. They are influenced by people and organizations, including businesses, policymakers, nonprofits and the general public. In turn, activities in the food system affect, both positively and negatively, human health, equity and the natural environment. The study of the food system encompasses all of these interrelated parts.

Looking at the connections between food, health, society and the environment in this way, one can imagine how what we eat determines “how the world is used.”

Understanding the food system can address complex challenges

Through understanding—and working with—the food system, health advocates, researchers, policymakers, business owners and otherwise engaged citizens can foster positive changes. These include promoting healthier diets, reducing the risk of foodborne illness and other diseases, upholding workers’ rights, supporting small businesses, conserving natural resources, mitigating climate change, improving air and water quality, and protecting animal welfare.

When the relationships in a system are not taken into account, unpredicted and undesired outcomes often result. The heavy reliance on agricultural chemicals is an example of a practice that may provide short-term benefits—fewer pests and greater crop growth, for example—alongside more indirect harms to health and ecosystems. Harms arising from activities in the food system might be prevented or reduced by better accounting for the numerous and complex connections between food, health, society and the environment.

The study of the food system is multidisciplinary

The study of the food system spans multiple academic subjects, including social studies, environmental science, biology, nutrition, family and consumer sciences, English and math. The knowledge, skills and attitudes developed around food system issues can help prepare learners for careers in public health, ecology, policy, nutrition, agriculture, justice, education and a variety of other fields.

There is a growing interest in food system issues

Educators and young adults—and the public in general—are increasingly interested in food system issues, partly in response to concerns around the healthfulness of the food we eat, food safety, local economies, animal welfare and impacts to the environment. Younger generations in particular are largely responsible for, and subject to, the long-term “livability” of the future. As such, it is both timely and fitting to address this pivotal audience, illuminating the many important food system issues that remain out of sight and out of mind for much of the public.

Understanding the food system can empower young adults

Younger generations are largely responsible for, and subject to, the long-term state of the food system. Given this responsibility, it is fitting to prepare them to effectively engage issues that affect themselves, their communities and the global environment. The knowledge, skills and attitudes fostered through the study of the food system can empower them to become informed participants—not only as consumers, but as engaged citizens involved in many facets of the system.

youth with apples