Food Systems for Healthy Places

(Originally published on 11/24/14)

By Alfonso Morales, PhD

Systems guide the food we eat from the fields all the way to our tables.  The built environment made possible the food system we have today, from canals, rail and storage infrastructure to refrigeration, retail forms, and use of the built environment to recover historical practices.  My work examines the multifaceted and reciprocal relationship between the built environment, health and livable communities.  In this post, I will highlight three projects currently underway that aim to maximize positive outcomes for food systems on local and national scales:

  1. The Oneida Nation:  Modern Tribal Food Systems
  2. Farmers Market Coalition:  Metrics for Market Success
  3. Food Systems Wiki:  A Guide to Understanding Food Systems

The Oneida Nation:  Modern Tribal Food Systems

Belief in food-founded health for people, and people who believe in their food, drive much of my work with the Oneida Tribe of North Central Wisconsin.  The Oneida Nation, like most Indian nations in the present-day United States, has undergone a long history of discrimination and cultural suppression.  The Oneida as a community suffer particularly from diabetes.  However, there are many efforts in place to reverse this trend. The resurgence of traditional agriculture, tsyunhehkwa^, is one such effort, as well as health and wellness programs, such as Just Move It Oneida.  A food system that is able to increase the supply of locally produced, healthy foods will be culturally meaningful, and supportive of tribal economic and health related goals.

In the fall of 2014, I began working with Joanie Buckley, internal services division director of the Oneida Tribe, on two four-month projects for the tribe: a food systems plan for the Nation, and a food center building design project to support the renewed cultural interest in food, provide an environment for entrepreneurs, and stimulate economic activity and educational and recreational opportunities.  The Oneida Planning Department, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the University of Wisconsin’s Nelson Institute and Center for Nonprofits have collaborated on these efforts.

Students and faculty at the University of Wisconsin began by combining land use maps, zoning overlays, and demographics with cultural insights from public participation processes at the Tribe, culminating in a trip to the Tribe to meet Fidel Delgado, the USDA architect for the food center building, and for feedback on our interim concept designs. By December, the Tribe will have completed cleared the food center site of an old structure, and the UW will deliver conceptual design for a new food center building and a food system plan that describes culturally sensitive economic and social opportunities to the tribe.

The new food center building incorporates the Oneida brand, culture and history, while performing the functions of food processing, distribution and sales. In addition to enhancing the existing Oneida food production and processing system, the building will also promote the economic revitalization of this area.


Farmers Market Coalition Research:  Metrics for Market Success

More than 8,100 farmers markets across the country play integral roles in their local food systems and economies, providing an avenue for farmers to sell their food directly to consumers.  Valuing their contributions, the federal government supports farmers markets by making parking lots and plazas available as market sites, and requiring building managers to accommodate the needs of market managers.

The Farmers Market Coalition, a nonprofit organization dedicated to strengthening farmers markets across the U.S., recently partnered with the University of Wisconsin to launch a new project called, “Indicators for Impact.”  In this project, we are pilot testing indicators associated with 27 metrics that will advance our understanding of the relationship between marketplaces and other actors in their built environments, such as the economic impact on surrounding businesses, and the ecological impacts of the farms.  We are working with markets in the Gulf Coast, Chesapeake Bay, and Northern Appalachia areas to provide market managers with the tools for data collection, analysis and reporting, which will help them advance their goals and better articulate the contributions of markets to the community’s quality of life.  The data collected will then be aggregated to create an online database on farmers markets across the country.

We worked from the literature on marketplaces and directly with market managers to select metrics of interest, which we are now operationalizing.  The metrics address a variety of indicators, such as, “acres in organic or third party certified ‘sustainable’ production,” and, “percentage of visitors using non-auto modalities to access the market.”  Many are concerned with food access and food security, such as how low-income or senior citizens access federal food benefits programs at marketplaces.  Managers will learn how to collect and analyze data on these metrics, and use that analysis to support market and community goals and relationships. 

See prototypes of the project’s graphic metrics reports.

Marketplaces are multifunctional spaces that activate existing environments and stimulate economic activity.  They have been and continue to be the scaffolding for many economic, health and social purposes, providing spaces for health screenings, school food education, and other services beyond the traditional scope of food provision.  Because of these linkages, the data provided by the Indicators for Impact project will be a valuable resource for public health practitioners, nonprofit organizations, schools, and municipalities.


The Food System Wiki:  A Guide to Understanding Food Systems

The Food System Wiki and its companion documents, an annotated bibliography and a resource for extension professionals, were initiated in 2010 as a project for my class, Markets and Food Systems, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, with support from the Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development (JAFSCD), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).  The wiki aims to present a comprehensive guide to food systems and agricultural development–related terms. It is a collection of scientific, political, and popular words, terms, and acronyms: all things food systems-related. We believe that these terms provide an accurate overview of both everyday and not-so-common phrases about this growing field, and will support the work of a wide range of students, academics and professionals.

Visit the Food System Wiki.

The work being done with the Oneida Nation, the Farmers Market Coalition and the Food System Wiki illustrates some of the many facets of the reciprocal relationship between the built environment and different food system activities. I have found the importance of strong relationships in this work to be clear– relationships between ideas and behavior, as well as relationships between organizations.  Advancing health through food requires more than advancing healthy food; it requires advancing a healthy built environment, good governance, and healthy inter-organizational relationships.  Through further collaboration, we can continue to improve the quality of our food systems and the health of our people.


I would like to acknowledge the following individuals for their invaluable support:  Joanie Buckley, internal services division director for the Oneida Tribe; Barbara Dickson, Stacie Danforth, and Barbara Webster, of the Oneida government, Mary Beth Collins and Natalie Feggestad from the Center for NonProfits in the University of Wisconsin (UW) School of Human Ecology; Hope Simon of the Nelson Institute at the UW; two excellent graduate students, Riley Balikian (Nelson Institute and URPL) and Jessica Buechler ​(URPL), as well as an undergraduate student, Tony Castagnoli, of Landscape Architecture; USDA architect Fidel Delgado; Jen Cheek, executive director of the Farmers Market Coalition; Sara Padilla, Stacy Miller and Dar Wolnik, all of FMC; and two of my PhD students, Lauren Suerth and Yuni Jeong. A very special thanks to Paul Robbins, director of the Nelson Institute at the UW, and Anne Alonzo, Administrator of the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service.

Related Resources

Read more by Dr. Morales

Dawson, Julie and Alfonso Morales eds. Under Contract.  Cities of Farmers: Problems, Possibilities and Processes of Producing Food in Cities. University of Iowa Press.

Day Farnsworth, Lindsay and Alfonso Morales. 2011. Scaling up for Regional Food Distribution. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems and Community Development. 2(1): 1-21.

Morales, Alfonso. 2011. “Public Markets: Prospects for Social, Economic, and Political Development.” Journal of Planning Literature. 26(3): 3-17.

Morales, Alfonso. 2010. “Planning and the Self-Organization of Marketplaces.” Journal of Planning Education and Research. 30(2): 182-197.

Morales, Alfonso and Gregg Kettles. 2009. “Healthy Food Outside: Farmers’ Markets, Taco Trucks, and Sidewalk Fruit Vendors.” Journal of Contemporary Health Law and Policy. 26(1): 20-48.


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