Glossary of Key Food Systems Terms

Through the course of working with sustainable food businesses, you may come across these terms that relate to food systems and their structures. To understand entrepreneurship in the food and agriculture sector, you’ll need to understand food systems. A concept originating in academic study, the term draws together the steps involved in soil-to-soil food production, from on-farm processes to distribution and marketing networks, to post-consumer disposal. Understanding the interactions between each of these spheres, and the ways in our current systems fall short of economic and environmental sustainability, is crucial for developing a business idea that models social entrepreneurship. For more information on each of these topics, see our articles and the glossary below.

This glossary is via The Food Commons, October 2011.


The area of land and sea within a region from which food is produced in order to deliver nutrition to a population base. A local or regional food system includes all the inputs, outputs and processes involved in feeding the population within a foodshed. Note that the foodshed concept does not obviate the goal or need to export or import food outside of a region. (Los Angeles Urban-Rural Roundtable, 2010) Regional Food System “An ideal regional food system describes a system in which as much food as possible to meet the population’s food needs is produced, processed, distributed and purchased at multiple levels and scales within the region, resulting in maximum resilience, minimum importation, and significant economic and social return to all stakeholders in the region. This is known as “self-reliance” as opposed to “self-sufficiency” wherein everything consumed is supplied from within the target area.” (Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group, 2010)

Food Hub

“A centrally located facility with a business management structure facilitating the aggregation, storage, processing, distribution, and/or marketing of locally/
regionally produced food products.” (USDA Agricultural Marketing Service). For more on food hubs, see our article.

Food Desert

“An area with limited access to affordable and nutritious food, particularly such an area composed of predominantly lower-income neighborhoods and communities.” (2008 Farm Bill)

Food Security

From the supply side, food security refers to a country’s (or state’s, or region’s) ability to produce enough food to support its population. More recently the term has been used to describe the ability of local, state and federal entities to protect the food supply from acts of terrorism. The term is most commonly used today to define the extent to which
a population has access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life.

Value Chain

“Strings of companies or collaborating players who work together to satisfy market demands for specific products or services. Sustainable value chains emphasize long-term, significant economic return to all firms in a chain, particularly producers who follow production practices using the highest standards of environmental and community stewardship. In a value chain business arrangement, each actor in the chain must make a mental shift from simply “What is best for my firm and my firm now?” to “What can I do in my firm to maximize the economic, environmental and community benefit to all the members of this value chain?” A significant change often comes in the form of information sharing. In a value chain members need to share a great deal more business information with one another so that all can make better decisions that affect  the group.”  (

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