Community Food System diagram, including descriptions for four elements of community food systems: production, processing, distribution and consumption

Adopting a Food Systems Approach: A Case Study of Just Food, Ottawa

By Nadia Ibrahim

In recent decades, there has been a growing interest in food issues and, increasingly, awareness of the concept of the food system amongst academics, governmental representatives, civil society organizations, and the public. However, there remains a lack of clarity around the meaning of a food systems approach amongst food system actors themselves. Just Food, a non-profit organization that aims to work towards vibrant, just and sustainable food and farming systems in the Ottawa region, has identified this dilemma.

Adopting a Food Systems Approach: A Case Study of Just Food, Ottawa, a new case study just published on the FLEdGE website, explores the meaning and value of a food systems approach for communities in Eastern Ontario, using Just Food, Ottawa as a case study. Using a community-based research methodology, the project documents an organizational history of Just Food and its food systems approach.

Our analysis of the food systems literature finds a lack of clarity in the food systems literature around the meaning of a food systems approach—it seems as though a wide variety of actors use the language of a food systems approach in different ways and to different ends. Our analysis suggests that one way of enhancing clarity in the food systems literature is to distinguish between the more mainstream food systems approach and what we call a critical food systems approach. A critical food systems approach aims to bring about significant, long-term structural change in the food system.

Just Food enacts a food systems approach by adopting a food systems lens (or food systems thinking) in its understanding of issues in the food system, and by working at the local level to engage in projects across the food system, with a focus on production and access. Just Food also acts as a hub for food systems work in Ottawa.

In addition to the challenges common to non-profit organizations, there are additional challenges associated with adopting a food systems approach. For instance, it can be difficult to work in a silo-ed policy environment and to communicate the long-term goals of a food systems approach to those who may be unfamiliar with the term. However, Just Food’s experience demonstrates the many strengths and opportunities of a food systems approach. These include a holistic understanding of the food system, the ability to identify and fill gaps in the food system, cross-jurisdictional policy development, and engagement in partnerships and collaborative projects.

Please see the Adopting a Food Systems Approach: A Case Study of Just Food, Ottawa executive summary for more information.