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Regional Food Systems Research: Needs, Priorities, and Recommendations

Posted October 1995

Why question the modern food system?

While the modern food system is efficient and bountiful as measured by many traditional criteria, a growing number of people question whether this system is sustainable and equitable. Concerns about persistent hunger, food safety, concentration of power within the food industry, and the environmental effects of an industrialized, globalized food system have prompted interest in more regional-based approaches.

To address the potential promise of regional perspectives for providing a more sustainable, equitable food system, the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems (CIAS) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison conducted a nine-month seminar entitled “The Regional Food Systems Seminar.”

What was the seminar about?

This multi-disciplinary, multiprofessional series of seminars had the dual goals of providing space for exploring food systems issues and building working relationships among UW-Madison faculty and local food systems professionals and practitioners.

The seminar’s goals were:

  • To develop shared expertise in food systems with an emphasis on regional and Wisconsin-oriented food enterprises and relationships
  • To develop and set priorities for research needs in regional food systems
  • To develop working relationships among seminar participants that foster multidisciplinary, citizen-involved research and/or outreach teams
  • To develop multidisciplinary, collaborative research and/or outreach proposals for consideration by a range of funding sources in 1995 and beyond

Definition of the “food system”

For the purposes of the seminar, the food system includes the biophysical and socioeconomic processes and relationships involved in the production, distribution, marketing, and consumption of food. The seminar’s focus emerged in part from the growing number of food system analyses that point to problems with the predominant food system, such as hunger, food safety, the impact of energy-intensive food packaging, transportation, and processing, and the decline in the number of farms and food enterprises.


Seminar participants took seriously the idea that local and regional food systems may be more sustainable alternatives that provide new opportunities for community and economic development. (See Kneen 1993; Herrin and Gussow 1989; Berry 1990; Dahlberg 1993; and Friedmann 1993.)

Self-reliance versus self-sufficiency

The seminar explored the potential benefits and implications of self-reliant food systems, a concept not to be confused with self-sufficient food systems. Self-sufficiency suggests complete independence from others, whereas self-reliance implies reducing dependence on others while still maintaining non-exploitative trading relationships. (Kneen 1993)

Systems link

The seminar was a conscious attempt to link CIAS’s historical focus on sustainable, integrated farming systems to those parts of the agri-food system that exist beyond the farm gate. It built upon considerable pre-existing interest and activity, on and off the UW-Madison campus, in examining the existing food system’s strengths and weaknesses and developing promising areas of alternative food systems.

Building dialogue

The seminar was also created to establish dialogue and build connections among university and non-university professionals interested in food systems. In addition, CIAS hoped to strengthen ties with the Food Systems Partnership at the University of Wisconsin. This multi-year project, funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, is designed to encourage collaborative food systems research and outreach programs.

Radial team model

The collaborative research teams developed through this seminar will seek funding from the Food Systems Partnership, CIAS, and other sources to carry out their projects. CIAS structured the seminar using a radial team model developed by the center. (Stevenson, et al., 1994) This model organized seminar participants into different areas of responsibility and levels of commitment.

Using the analogy of a wheel, participants at the hub assumed a high level of responsibility for organizing the seminar and devoting a portion of their research programs or professional activities to alternative food systems. Radiating out from the hub was CIAS which acted as facilitator for the seminar, providing administrative support, planning, and information. Clustered around the hub were a host of satellite participants who attended meetings, engaged in the dialogue, and provided specific expertise and resources for food systems discussions.

Seminar participants

Participants included interested academics as well as food system practitioners. University-based participants were faculty and students from the UW-Madison departments of agricultural economics, nutritional sciences, rural sociology, agricultural journalism, soil science, plant pathology, and the Institute for Environmental Studies. The seminar was also enriched by the active participation of Kate Clancy, a visiting nutritionist and prominent food systems analyst on sabbatical from Syracuse University.

Non-university participants included such food systems professionals as a restaurateur, a specialty food manufacturer and marketer, a policy analyst and lobbyist, and an anti-hunger advocate.

Seminar structure

The seminar met monthly from October 1994 through June 1995. The core group often met on an interim basis to discuss more thoroughly issues surfacing at the previous seminar, plan upcoming seminars, and report on the development of specific research project proposals.

Each seminar sought to balance analytical discussion with a concrete case study. For example, one seminar combined a discussion of the concepts and issues surrounding food security with a presentation by a representative of a local agency that coordinates a community garden program for low income neighborhoods.

In order to identify research opportunities and priorities, the last part of each seminar was reserved for proposing research, outreach, or action-oriented projects that the day’s discussion evoked. A half-day concluding seminar provided time for evaluation, synthesis, and future planning.

In addition to discussing issues, seminar members took a series of field trips to some of the participants’ businesses and agencies, including The Specialty Cheese Company of Lowell, Wisconsin, L’Etoile restaurant in Madison (which sources 80 percent of its food from Wisconsin), and the Hunger Task Force of Milwaukee.

Regional Food Systems Research: Needs, Priorities, and Recommendations costs $3. To order, send a check payable to “UW-Madison CIAS” along with a note regarding what publication(s) you are ordering and the address where you would like it/them sent. Send you request to:
1535 Observatory Drive
Madison, WI 53706
(608) 262-5200