Blogs, Health

Food systems transformation is essential to ensure health for all

Health For All is the theme of World Health Day 2023, an international day of significance held on April 7 each year. For the Global Alliance, “health for all” must include the ability for everyone to access nutritious, culturally-appropriate food irrespective of income, location, age, race, and other factors. 

Our food systems impact health through various interconnected pathways; unhealthy diets, unsafe food, environmental pollution, and the physical and mental health of farmers and agricultural workers.

What we eat significantly determines our health. The ritual that comes with breaking bread together is an experience that transcends cultures, borders, and socio-economic divides. The food we eat also results in environmental impacts that affect our health and well-being. As a result, food systems transformation is a critical pathway to ensure people are healthy, both physically and mentally. 

Unhealthy food is an issue of injustice

Unequal access to healthy and nutritious food is an issue of equity and injustice. 

Unhealthy diets such as ultra-processed foods are a significant cause of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) like diabetes, cancer, and heart disease. Recently, The Lancet categorized ultra-processed foods as a commercial determinant of health, alongside tobacco, alcohol, and fossil fuels. The Lancet report highlights the widening health disparities within and between countries due to the consumption of such products. 

All over the world, but especially in the Global South, the proliferation of fast food restaurants and easy access to ultra-processed foods is causing more people to get sick with NCDs. This dietary transition from traditional diets to processed foods is concerning because it worsens existing health problems related to chronic undernutrition, including stunting. Several studies indicate that childhood stunting is linked to a greater likelihood of developing obesity later in life. This results in an increase in obesity rates, which can negatively impact an individual’s general health, earning potential, and their capacity to make meaningful contributions to society. It’s a vicious cycle! 

Hence, promoting access to healthy food and addressing the issue of unhealthy diets is crucial to ensuring health equity and justice.

The health implications of what we eat go beyond physical health. For Indigenous communities, food is central to culture and identity. Because of this integral connection, the loss of traditional diets and shifting availability of certain foods due to climate change, urbanization, and other human-caused disruptions can negatively impact the mental health of communities. 

Additionally, ensuring the health of all individuals means considering the working conditions of those who produce our food. In the current industrial food system, farm workers are exposed to occupational hazards and environmental contamination that jeopardize their health and the well-being of their families. Protecting the health of people and the planet requires transforming food and farming systems away from a reliance on hazardous contaminants like synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. 

We need equitable access to healthy food environments

Health for all emphasizes the importance of providing every individual with just and equitable access to each of the many factors that contribute to good health. 

That means going beyond solely examining what people consume, and taking into account their food environment which includes the affordability of food,  knowledge of how to prepare nutritious meals, how accessible healthy food is and how easy it is to get food,  and various other factors. Food environments are the physical, economic, political, and socio-cultural contexts in which people engage with the food system.

It is clear that in Global North countries, like the United States, unhealthy food environments are disproportionately found in neighborhoods with high poverty rates and a larger number of racialized community members. Those residing in these areas often experience higher rates of obesity due to limited access to healthy food markets, an abundance of liquor and convenience stores, and lower quality produce.

Conversely, in countries in the Global South, people encounter unhealthy food environments when they lose access to the land required to cultivate and harvest their own produce, or when they cannot purchase local products from informal markets. In these scenarios, the introduction of a supermarket on what was previously agricultural land can negatively impact both food security and local health outcomes if individuals are unable to afford or grow their own food.

Food advertising also plays a significant role in shaping our food environments, particularly among vulnerable populations such as children who are often the target of advertisements promoting unhealthy, ultra-processed foods and beverages. These products are typically less expensive than fruits and vegetables and are marketed as convenient, tasty, and even trendy. 

Food systems transformation for health

For World Health Day 2023, the World Health Organization is encouraging stakeholders to reflect on the past seven decades of public health achievements that have improved quality of life, and to work collaboratively towards addressing the present-day health challenges in the most effective way possible.

The Global Alliance has seen how public health success is unlocked when people can enjoy nutritious, sustainable, whole-food diets that are adapted to local ecosystems and socio-cultural contexts. We progress towards health for all when communities reconnect with agroecological farming practices and diverse crop varieties, when consumers better understand the true cost of their food, and when stakeholders come together to build local food sovereignty.

To effectively tackle the health challenges of today, we must look to systems-level solutions that strive for not only the outcomes of good health but the drivers of it. Solutions that account for the connections between health, climate, food, and energy. And most importantly, we must ensure nutritious food is available to all, not only those who can afford it. 

Only when we take these steps can we truly achieve health for all.

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Vivian Maduekeh
Program Coordinator: Climate and Health