Healthy Eating: Food, Family, and Good Nutrition
In the United States, millions of events such as holidays, birthdays, and weddings are marked with small celebrations that embrace food, family, and friends. The special foods associated with these occasions convey traditions of gathering and expressions of gratitude. Other cultures around the world honor their own food traditions, often linked with religious events and other remembrances.
To the extent that people can afford them, the meals consumed on these occasions are often rich in nutritional content as well as historical meaning. Special dishes laden with protein, fats, and sugar signal a deep sense of abundance and well-being. Indeed, there may be some scrimping on the resources allocated to the daily meals before or after the holiday in order to meet the needs of the celebratory feasts.
But holiday meals are the exception. They do not reflect optimal dietary standards or sustained patterns of healthy eating. Nearly 40 percent of the world’s population cannot afford to acquire healthy diets on any given day, leading to endemic levels of malnutrition. In other places, acute food insecurity (a severe lack of food) is the result of persistent drought, extreme flooding, conflict, or other factors. According to the World Food Program, nearly 50 million people are estimated to be teetering on the edge of famine, unable to access even the minimum quantity of calories needed for survival.
The global nutritional picture is one of high contrast. Even in countries experiencing widespread hunger, a substantial number of people are, at the same time, eating diets that symbolize abundance but that literally make them sick. The foods they eat contain more calories than their bodies need or include too few of the micronutrients (iron, zinc, Vitamin A, among others) that are needed for good health. Unhealthy diets are contributing to alarming levels of obesity and the rising incidence of noncommunicable diseases like cardiac diseases, diabetes, and some cancers.
Given the ongoing food system disruptions associated with the Covid-19 pandemic and Russia’s war in Ukraine, now is the time for action that will enable everyone to eat healthier diets on a daily basis. But it is not at all clear who should do what to build stronger, healthier nations in which all people are eating meals that provide optimal nutrition on a consistent and environmentally sustainable basis. So far, expecting people to choose healthy diets on their own is not working.
Dialogues at national and international levels in 2021 and 2022 have shed some light on other food security factors to be taken into account. Three signal events—the UN Food Systems Summit held in September 2021; the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health convened in September 2022; and the 27th annual Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP27) in November 2022—have built on a growing evidence base to develop recommendations for interventions that would improve access to sustainable, healthy diets for all in the coming decade.
Data from countries that are both low income and high income, more and less vulnerable to climate change, and more and less dependent on food imports were brought to the fore by the diverse stakeholders participating in these events as well as a growing community of analysts. Statistics on the diets accessible to families in rural and urban areas showed that food security in low- and middle-income countries was negatively affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. Public provision of food safety nets to households in high-income countries was more effective in preventing increases in food insecurity as well as improving health outcomes. The positive nutritional and educational outcomes associated with the provision of school meals have been widely confirmed, although the costs and specific nutritional standards pose operational concerns for many governments. Further, some global food corporations have reformulated some of their products to make them healthier—that is, lower in sugar, sodium, and fats. These companies cite their progress in this direction as positive evidence of their commitments to improving nutrition.
UN Food Systems Summit
The UN Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) brought together governments, academics, and a host of diverse stakeholders in a robust (if largely online) discussion of issues in 2020–2021. The summit resulted in agreement on a global aspiration: sustainable, healthy diets for all. The summit also fostered a conceptual shift of focus: from food production toward a broader food system lens. The roles of post-farmgate actors in the food supply chains—food processors and manufacturers, transport, wholesaling, retailing, marketing, and food service operations—all came into view. This shift was welcomed by those embracing system transformation but also generated some controversy.
Less visible, but still present in the summit preparations, were both public and private interests in environmental resource management and the provision of food and agriculture-supportive infrastructure. Environmental and climate change concerns associated with global food systems reappeared in preparations for COP27, the November 2022 meeting of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. And consumers were definitely at the table, in recognition of their capacities to drive demand for food.
Many commitments to action were made in the days following the summit. However, it is now apparent that contemporaneous societal disruptions of Covid-19 and the launch of conflict in Ukraine in early 2022 have altered participants’ plans to implement their commitments to sustainable, healthy diets for all. National lockdowns and supply chain disruptions associated with the Covid-19 pandemic limited consumers’ abilities to access and afford healthy foods in countries both rich and poor. The holes in coverage by public food safety nets became obvious in many countries, including the United States, and increased demand emerged for global food banking efforts that draw on volunteers and local leadership. International humanitarian assistance resources were stretched to meet the direct needs of conflict-affected Ukrainians and, more indirectly, the food needs of people who would normally have relied upon Ukrainian and Russian food exports, worsening malnutrition for millions around the world.
The power of international food and agriculture corporations in shaping global diets, which emerged in the Food Systems Summit deliberations, has now also been highlighted as national and regional price crises have compounded the multiple stresses of Covid-19, conflict, and severe climate events. Market supply uncertainties and rising prices have been widely associated with actions (or inactions) of the 350 or so large corporations that account for more than half of the world’s food and agricultural revenues. The 2021 Access to Nutrition Index and the Food and Agriculture Benchmark’s Insight Report for the same year also point to the continued poor performance of these corporations in meeting the qualitative challenge of improving nutrition and health through their policies and practices. Instead, reformulation of food products to reduce sugar content, changing marketing tactics to encourage children to make healthier food choices, and providing nutrition-relevant information on labels are among the practices that respond to the challenge.
White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health
The Biden administration’s September, 2022, launch of the National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health focused on ending hunger and increasing healthy eating and physical activity by 2030 so that “fewer Americans [will] experience diet-related diseases.” The strategy outlines in some detail a host of actions that various federal agencies and departments could take to “drive transformative change to end hunger and reduce diet-related diseases and disparities.” The agencies and systems mentioned in the strategy indicate the breadth of potential involvement by state and federal governments.
The strategy’s calls to action, however, clearly recognize that a whole-of-society response is needed. The list of societal actors mentioned is long: states, cities, school districts, colleges and universities, scientists and researchers, hospitals and health professionals, philanthropists, and the private sector (the food industry, food retailers, and online grocery companies, and even city bike-share companies).
A complementary executive order, Advancing Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Innovation for a Sustainable, Safe, and Secure American Bioeconomy, provides a further point of federal leadership on food and agriculture, highlighting the potential contributions of academics and the scientific community in developing the national bioeconomy—the aspects of the economy derived from biological resources—and the availability, safety, and affordability of healthy diets.
These national initiatives, though, are just that. Little attention is directed to the role that the United States plays in addressing global hunger and ensuring that healthy diets are available outside of the country through policy action on food and agricultural production and trade as well as funding for humanitarian and development assistance. U.S. leadership in advancing the science that will enable food systems to support the linked global goals of healthier people and a healthier planet also remains unexplored.
COP27 provided another landmark opportunity to focus on the future of food systems. While the main focus of the annual COPs has been on climate change, organizers of COP27 acknowledged that there is new, or possibly just expanded, appreciation that food systems are important contributors to climate change, accounting for as much as a third of greenhouse gas emissions. And there is growing consensus that deliberate actions must be taken as part of the larger climate change initiative to mitigate these emissions.
There is also a new sense of urgency regarding the need to provide resources that will accelerate adaptation of today’s food and agricultural systems to already-evolving climate conditions. However, developing consensus on the inclusion of food system issues in the COP27 agenda is still a work in progress. The political nature of the “loss and damage” issue overwhelmed the COP27 debates, as recent examples of catastrophic impacts of climate events in countries that have contributed little to greenhouse gas emissions drew attention to this issue. The 2022 flooding in Pakistan clearly demonstrated the “losses” in question at COP27 by showing the devastation of locally produced food supplies and of rural livelihoods reduced by extreme climate events. The “damages” will be calculated in terms of lasting impacts on populations’ health, nutritional status, and productivity.
In short, “sustainable, healthy diets for all” may be an aspirational goal, but it requires immediate action. Food, family, and good nutrition underpin our concepts of a good life—one in which people are healthy, productive, emotionally supported, looking forward to the future, and enjoying the daily pleasures of tasty, satisfying meals. When those markers of a good life and “sustainable, healthy diets for all” are not achievable, the sustainability of societies and economies are at risk. High-level dialogues about food systems, nutrition, health, and climate change advance collective understanding of the complex issues and provoke a much-needed search for solutions rooted in public policy and action. But actions that literally recognize and engage millions, even billions, of institutions, ideas, and individuals are essential.
The stresses of Covid-19, climate, and conflict have led to unanticipated, often negative, transformations of local and global food systems over the past few years. Neither governments nor the private businesses that make markets work have been able to fully cushion the blows. Supply chain disruptions have left farmers large and small unable to sell in markets and many consumers unable to access or afford the foods they want and need. Catastrophic floods and droughts have threatened daily survival and destroyed assets needed for future prosperity. Mortality rates (including deaths from Covid-19) have been increased by underlying poor nutritional status, including obesity as well as undernutrition. Under-resourced and underperforming healthcare service delivery systems have compounded the risks of diseases from all causes. Sudden losses of jobs or incomes have reduced the affordability of desired foods, and probably that of healthier foods in particular.
Recovery from these significant setbacks to global nutrition and health is already a high priority for many, and some progress has been made. While risks and uncertainties abound, there are opportunities to define a “new normal” in which more sustainable, healthier diets for all play a paramount role. The UN Food Systems Coordination Hub (led by the FAO) intends to conduct a “Stocktaking Moment” in July 2023 to assess progress and better link participants in the UNFSS to share their experiences in pursuing the transformative commitments made at the summit, while fully recognizing that the challenges of conflict, covid, and climate change are still in play.
It is up to leaders in government, business, education, and communities to create a food environment that promotes and facilitates healthy eating and a food system that is both climate- and nutrition-aware. People, through their dietary choices, must be enabled and encouraged to contribute to a future that is sustainably productive, healthy, and equitable.
Emmy Simmons is a non-resident senior adviser with the Global Food Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.