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The Community Food Movement: What is the food system?

The Community Food Movement: What is the food system?

The community food movement: a series about the emerging social movement around food…


PERHAPS the simplest way to think about the food supply chain is to imagine it as the path followed by the food we eat as it moves from farm, through processing to we the eaters.  This adopts the inputs > process > outputs systems thinking model in following the journey along our food supply chain from farm to waste bin.

Click to expand…

Food supply chain 0815

Let’s start…


Our food supply starts with our farmers and graziers.

They make use of environmental assets and services such as sunlight, water, air and soil; they then add knowledge and skills, often applied through technologies, and add inputs like agricultural chemicals (fertilisers, herbicides, soil amendments, pesticides — either synthetic or organic chemicals) and use energy (hydrocarbon — oil fuels — and electricity and sunlight) to assist the seeds they plant grow to maturity.

The mature crops are then harvested and sold to food processors or, if the farmer direct-markets to buyers, sold at farmers’ markets or via farmgate sales.

Home and community gardeners are also food producers. They grow mainly for home consumption and, sometimes, swap produce informally between neighbours or with other community gardeners, and sometimes through community food swaps.

Research published in 2014 by the Australia Institute report, Grow Your Own, disclosed that 52 percent of Australian householders produce some of what they eat. Home gardening is an Australian tradition.


Farm products produced by farmers and graziers go to food processors who use cooking, preserving, drying and other processing technologies to turn raw farm product into foods palatable by humans.

The food products are packaged by canning, bottling or in plastic and are sold to food distributors.


Fresh foods such as fruit, vegetables and culinary herbs are delivered by farmers to the large, urban wholesale produce markets from where they are on-sold to retailers who, in turn, sell them to the public. Some are sold to restauranteurs for cooking and selling as prepared food to diners in cafes and restaurants.  Organic food markets are a feature of most wholesale produce markets, as the retailers who buy organic foods on-sell to a specialised organic food market.

Greengrocers buy fresh fruits, herbs and vegetables from wholesale markets and on-sell to the public through their small businesses. Like the supermarkets, greengrocers also sell imported and preserved foods. Some combine the product lines of greengrocer with the specialist products of the delicatessen.

The supermarket industry contracts growers to produce for them. The produce goes from farm to supermarket distribution centres that stock the supermarkets through the ‘just in time’ delivery system that allows supermarkets to keep only a limited stock of products in the expectation that the distribution centres  trucks will keep them topped-up through frequent deliveries.

Fresh foods sometimes bypass the produce markets and go straight to farmers’ markets that offer direct marketing opportunities to farmers. Some goes directly to  CSA (community supported agriculture schemes) schemes.

Community food system

Controlling around 70 to 80 percent of Australia’s food and grocery market, the supermarket corporations dominate Australia’s food distribution system. Their scale and geographical distribution enables them to directly affect farmer income and the production of food wastes.

A smaller food distribution system links growers, urban wholesale produce markets and greengrocers, and other small retailers such as food co-operatives, including specialist organic fresh food businesses. Included in this are social enterprise (not-for-profit businesses with social goals such as supplying organic food at an affordable price), small for-profit business and voluntary community enterprise. These are frequently classified as being part of the ‘community food system’, although there is no single, clear definition of what makes up that system and there is discussion about including for-profit business.

Distribution enterprises within the community food system include:

  • organic food buyers groups and food co-operatives (some of which sell via shopfronts while others distribute through a weekly collection venue); they obtain what they sell from organic produce wholesalers
  • community supported agriculture (CSA) schemes like Brisbane’s Food Connect, Sydney’s Ooooby and Melbourne’s CERES Good Foods are supplied directly from smaller farms in the region and on-sell to members; their social goals include developing regional food economies and supporting the livelihoods of small-scale farmers, some farming on the city fringe; most CSAs deliver subscribers’ weekly orders to their homes
  • organic home delivery services provide a direct link between organic wholesale markets and subscribers, delivering the foods directly to homes.
As organic foods grew in popularity from the late 1960s they required an effective distribution system. Seizing the opportunity were numerous small retail businesses specialising in organic fresh food and groceries.
As organic foods grew in popularity from the late 1960s it required an effective distribution system. Seizing the opportunity were numerous small retail businesses specialising in organic fresh food and groceries.


Foods obtained from retailers are prepared by home cooking.

Foods grown in home and community gardens or obtained through the small number of community food swaps form a type of subsistence agriculture for home consumption.

Food waste

Waste is produced when food is prepared for eating. According to the NSW government’s Love Food Hate Waste program, the causes of food being wasted are buying too much at the store and preparing too much when cooking.

Love Food Hate Waste puts at around 361 kilograms the food waste generated per person annually in Australia, with food waste making up around one third of all municipal rubbish.  Something like 30 to 50 percent of the world’s food production is wasted.

OzHarvest is a Sydney food rescue organisation that salvages food leftovers for urban feeding programs. Other Australian states have similar food rescue organisations that prevent leftovers from becoming food waste.

Annual value of NSW household food waste: $2.5 billion, of which:

  • fresh food: $848 million
  • leftovers: $694 million
  • packaged and long life foods: $372 million
  • drinks: $231 million
  • frozen food: $231 million
  • take away and home delivered food: $180 million.

Sydney: 300,000 tonnes of food is wasted each year.
Food waste to landfill each year by NSW businesses: over 400,000 tonnes.

The annual retail value of Australia’s food waste: estimated more than $5 billion. (Source: The Conversation 

Food waste is due to:

  • buying too much
  • cooking too much
  • saving and storing food incorrectly.

(Source: Love Food Hate Waste. EPA Environment, Climate Change and Water.)

There are two destinations for food wastes:

  • landfill, where food wastes degrade and release methane, adding to the volume of gases contributing to climatic warming; food waste is the largest contributor to methane outgassing
  • home, community garden and commercial composting systems that convert food wastes into compost fertiliser, generating a materials reuse feedback loop to producers.


Transport systems are critical in moving food products between producers, processors, distributors, retailers and through the food waste channels.

A supply of affordable hydrocarbon fuels derived from oil and gas is critical to the transport of foods through the food supply chain.

Stocks and flows

We can see that the food supply chain exhibits the stocks and flows model of systems dynamics. Stocks are those places where food temporarily aggregates during production, processing or marketing. Flows we can think of as the transport links joining the components or stocks of the food supply chain and through which food, related information  and the transactional finances generated by the food supply chain move.

It is the food consumer that sustains the economics of the food supply chain, making it important that food is priced at an affordable level. Affordability is a function of food markets in which, ideally, food prices are set by combining production and the other costs to growers, processors and distributors with what buyers are prepared to pay. That is influenced by both affluence and poverty. These have a bearing on food and dietary quality and health.

That is how open, free markets would operate, anyway. The reality in Australia is that the food and grocery market is distorted by the purchasing and marketing practices, and the asymmetric economic power of the supermarket industry dominated by Coles and Woolworths, sometimes described as the ‘duopoly’. Smaller supermarket chains like Aldi and IGA have a much smaller market share.

The buying practices and pressure exerted by the duopoly on suppliers has come under legal scrutiny, as has their implication in misrepresenting products, paying farmers too little (which helps keep their retail prices low and outcompete smaller retailers) and rejecting a large volume of farmers’ produce to become food waste on the grounds of the size and appearance, a rejection that has nothing to do with the food’s nutritional value.

A simple model

The picture of the food supply chain offered here is a simple one. The aim is to describe the main components of the system by identifying its stocks and flows.

Like any system, the food supply chain is vulnerable to intervention at any of its leverage points such as prices, production practices and food imports competing with Australian-produced foods and the livelihoods of Australian farmers and food processors.

The food supply chain is a complex system, and like any system it is influenced by the feedback of information to its production, processing and distribution components such as buyer preferences, willingness to pay, weather and climatic variations and market conditions. This is how those components tweak what they do so they remain competitive in our market system.

Russ Grayson 2015.

The community food movement — a series:

What is the food system?

An alternative — the community food system

The community food movement — the social precursors

The coming of the advocates

The birth of the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance

The community food movement — Seven big challenges

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