What do we mean by a "sustainable" food system?

Food activists often say they work for a “sustainable,” “healthy,” “fair,” and “diverse” food system. These words sound good enough. But what exactly do they mean? Clarifying our terms is an critical facet of making a coherent statement and a measurable impact on our communities. As organizations and individuals, we would do well to sit down with our colleagues and elucidate our mission statements to ensure that we are all on the same page when it comes to envisioning a better future.

Last summer, four major public health entities- The American Dietetic Association, American Nurses Association, American Planning Association, and American Public Health Association- did exactly that. They worked together to develop seven principles of a healthy, sustainable food system that they could use as a “shared platform for systems-wide food policy change.” Groundswell joins them in affirming these vitally important tenets of a food system that works for everyone. Thanks to Groundswell advisor Gil Gillespie for sharing this important message.

Principles of a Healthy, Sustainable Food System

We support socially, economically, and ecologically sustainable food systems that promote health — the current and future health of individuals, communities, and the natural environment.
A healthy, sustainable food system is:


  • Supports the physical and mental health of all farmers, workers, and eaters
  • Accounts for the public health impacts across the entire lifecycle of how food is produced, processed, packaged, labeled, distributed, marketed, consumed, and disposed


  • Conserves, protects, and regenerates natural resources, landscapes, and biodiversity
  • Meets our current food and nutrition needs without compromising the ability of the system to meet the needs of future generations


  • Thrives in the face of challenges, such as unpredictable climate, increased pest resistance, and declining, increasingly expensive water and energy supplies

Diverse in

  • Size and scale — includes a diverse range of food production, transformation, distribution, marketing, consumption, and disposal practices, occurring at diverse scales, from local and regional to national and global
  • Geography — considers geographic differences in natural resources, climate, customs, and heritage
  • Culture — appreciates and supports a diversity of cultures, socio-demographics, and lifestyles
  • Choice — provides a variety of health-promoting food choices for all


  • Supports fair and just communities and conditions for all farmers, workers, and eaters
  • Provides equitable physical access to aff ordable food that is health promoting and culturally appropriate

Economically Balanced

  • Provides economic opportunities that are balanced across geographic regions of the country and at different scales of activity, from local to global, for a diverse range of food system stakeholders
  • Affords farmers and workers in all sectors of the system a living wage


  • Provides opportunities for farmers, workers, and eaters to gain the knowledge necessary to understand how food is produced, transformed, distributed, marketed, consumed, and disposed
  • Empowers farmers, workers and eaters to actively participate in decision making in all sectors of the system

A healthy, sustainable food system emphasizes, strengthens, and makes visible the interdependent and inseparable relationships between individual sectors (from production to waste disposal) and characteristics (health-promoting, sustainable, resilient, diverse, fair, economically balanced, and transparent) of the system.

For more information, visit the American Planning Association’s website.