Food System Sustainability Project


Click here to download the final report of the food systems sustainability project, Planting Prosperity and Harvesting Health: Trade-Offs and Sustainability in Our Regional Food System (.pdf file, 16.4 MB).

To open the file, you will need the free Adobe Acrobat Reader, which can be downloaded at

This final report includes revisions based on feedback from the April 25 forum on food system sustainability, as well as additional indicators.

Click here to download the executive summary of the project, including findings and next steps.

The report and the forum were made possible in part by grants from Kaiser Permanente Northwest and the Food Innovation Center at Oregon State University.


Why an Assessment?

The purpose of this assessment is to evaluate, or measure, the trends of the region's food system. It starts with goals (or a vision) for that system, and uses data indicators to measure progress toward them over time.

Students and faculty from Community Food Matters, funded in part by a Portland State University initiative, were involved in momentum building around sustainable food systems from 2000 onward. Through their efforts, an advisory group of food system stakeholders and more than 70 local Portland Food System conference attendees highlighted the need and desire for a food system assessment.

Food System Assessments, or activities that involve systematic collection of data and dissemination of information, can be used at the community level (see the Community Food Security Coalition), the county level (see UC Davis Programs), and the state or regional level (see The Vivid Picture Project) to help community leaders and decision makers devise strategies to improve local issues.

Why "Regional"?

The "region" for this assessment is defined as Oregon and Washington producers/suppliers/farmers through the distribution chain to consumers in the six county Portland-Vancouver area (Clark, Washington, Columbia, Yamhill, Multnomah, Clackamas counties). This is the region that our Institute is charged with assisting (see IMS Mission). It is also an effort to bridge "urban" concerns with those that are "rural".

Why "Stakeholders"?

Literature on indicator projects reveals that data indicators and assessments have the most utility when decision makers who have the power to create policies and programs are actively involved in creating the vision, the data, and contribute to helping one another understand what data trends really mean (e.g. the context).

  • Individuals have been asked to help with the discussion who have a stake in the food system being economically, environmentally, and socially sustainable.
  • These individuals work for programs or in policies that have an impact on shaping or altering the system through decision making and use of resources (e.g. training farmers, organizing workers, or creating markets). Or, they are member of a group that is organized to impact programs/policies that do.
  • Collectively, they represent diverse perspectives (economic, social, environmental, cultural); which is crucial for this process to be credible and viable.

Everyone has a stake in the food system; later we would like help in defining specific processes for input of anyone and everyone. We are also conducting "informational" interviews with a broad range of other stakeholders who are not direct advisors for the goals and data.

Why "Indicators"?

Indicators include data that provides a summary of certain features of a place or system; the Gross Domestic Product is an aggregated economic measure. They can also "indicate" the status of a problem; recycling rates, crime rates, poverty and unemployment rates are examples of this. Indicators can also help manage complicated, interrelated, systems through providing information related to specific actions.

Indicators do not directly drive policy - they just provide information. It is the collaborative process and an ongoing dialogue among decision makers and other stakeholders that gives the data utility. Indicators only influence programs and policy, or system change, when they become part of our thinking and ordinary decision making. The objective of this project is to provide contextually meaningful, rigorous data to decision makers.

  • We used several other assessments and literature from urban planning, urban sustainability, and system science to guide how data is selected.

Why "Collaboration"?

While it can be challenging to work together, group expertise means we can cover more ground. The food system is complicated, involves multiple sub-systems (e.g. markets, bioregions, cultures) and is continually changing. An indicator only represents a very small part of what program and policy makers want to pay attention to. Participation and collaboration among individuals with different perspectives gives us the potential to wrestle with those differences and help invent innovative ways of addressing them.

In discussion groups, we will have a facilitator trained in consensus-based processes. The objective behind this is to help us move beyond differences, protect our individual values, but still find common areas for agreement.

What do we mean by "Sustainable"?

The concept of sustainability originates in conservation biology: broadly, the idea that resources can be used in a certain way so that these resources will continue to exist for future generations.

There are multiple contested definitions that have emerged over the years. Sustainablity encompasses social, economic and environmental concepts. Thus, instead of one definition, we are asking stakeholders to create an outcome-driven understanding of the concept. In other words, when these user-defined goals are met - that's when our system is "sustainable."