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Food Systems as Networks

We can't change what we don't understand.

By Ian Rose
Published January 7, 2020
Categories: None
"The first law of intelligent tinkering is to save all the parts." -Aldo Leopold

If that's the first rule, I'd add a Rule Zero: Before you can save all the parts, you have to know them. Likewise, before we can talk about improving local food systems, we have to define and analyze them as they are. One of the best methods for studying systems this complex is network analysis, so it may be useful to start thinking of food systems as food networks. (Don't sue us, Food Network, we promise not to capitalize it.)

Any network is made up of nodes, points where players in the system meet and interact. If you're studying traffic, every intersection could be a node. If you're looking at social media trends, you could define nodes as hashtags, accounts followed, or topics discussed. So what are our nodes for local food system analysis?

You could argue that every person in a given area is a node of its food network. After all, everyone eats, and nearly everyone buys food at one time or another, most of us at least once a week. But even though a world with 7 billion nodes might be accurate, it's not very useful. For our purposes, it makes more sense to talk about nodes in terms of producers, distributors and retailers of food, leaving the consumers to be the passengers that travel the network, rather than the network itself.

So what counts as a node?

  • Farms? Definitely. They produce most of our raw foods.
  • Food processors. They take farmed food and turn it into a wider variety of products.
  • Distributors gather foods from both farms and processors and funnel them to retailers.
  • Grocery stores and markets. They are one primary way that consumers actually get their hands on food.
  • Restaurants fill the roles of both processor and retailer, making simpler foods into more complex ones and then supplying the end user.
  • Food banks and pantries supply food to those without the resources to use the other nodes.
  • Institutions like schools and prisons gather and distribute food with limited or no choice for their consumers, and their large purchasing power makes them important drivers of price and quality.
  • Government agencies may not be direct distributors of food (though some definitely go in the "institutions" bucket above). They are included here mostly as managers of the network, who set the rules which govern all the other nodes.

Now, unless the community being analyzed is a very small town or a massive city, you're talking about a good, but not unreasonably high number of nodes, both more manageable and useful than trying to track every consumer separately.

Okay. Now what?

The main value in defining all the nodes in your particular network is to narrow down your stakeholders and target your advocacy where it can be most useful. If you know all the school districts and individual schools in your community, you can start to research their food purchasing policies. Once you know all the grocery stores, you can start to talk to their managers about getting more locally sourced food on the shelves.

Gaps in the Data are Data

Network analysis shows you not only where the nodes are, but also where they aren't. Think about what food production, distribution and processing is not included on your list. Is it because you missed them? No worries - add them now. But if they just aren't there, you have another very important piece of information. You have the gaps in your local food system.

For example, what if you find that the northern half of your community has three grocery stores and a farmers market, and the southern half has one grocery story and no markets. Depending on the size of the community being analyzed, you may have discovered a food desert, or at the very least, an opportunity for a new store or market. Grocery stores are extremely expensive and take a long time to get started, but farmers markets often start from just a few local residents and the realization of an unmet need in a particular community or neighborhood.

Like any tool, network analysis can be useful in the right context, and it's only as good as the data you give it. The old rule still applies - Garbage In, Garbage Out - but with some time spent on a complete list of nodes, it can be a vital first step to making your local food system more robust and resilient.