Toward a Sustainable, Health-based Food System

Elise Miller, MEd

Most of us have heard of Michael Pollan’s ‘An Eater’s Manifesto’: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Excellent advice for those of us who are fortunate enough to have a variety of food choices. The challenge of course is that our current industrialized food system (and related sectors such as advertising) encourages us to eat lots of food-like substances and high on the food chain—and for many in inner cities, finding a fresh vegetable, much less an organic one, can be as rare as gold.

In addition to these challenges, hormone disruptors (also known as endocrine disrupting chemicals) are found in everything from the feed given to animals to the pesticides sprayed on crops to the plastic additives in packaging—all of which we end up ingesting. These chemicals are now associated with a range of health concerns, including obesity, diabetes, certain cancers, neurological disorders and reproductive health problems, as the Endocrine Society described in their recent consensus statement. And then there are issues such as the use of antibiotics in food, the importation of foods that aren’t required to meet US standards, and food-borne viruses like e.coli.

The good news is that organizations on national, state and local levels are beginning to press for a health-based food system. For example, the American Medical Association (AMA) recently adopted a policy resolution “in support of practices and policies within health care systems that promote and model a healthy and ecologically sustainable food system.” In addition, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) and The National Research Council (NRC) released a report last week that emphasized the need for local governments to create environments in which people make healthful lifestyle decisions. The statement calls for municipalities to “discourage fast-food restaurants near schools and playgrounds through zoning, provide tax incentives for groceries in underserved areas, and create nutritional standards for government-run after-school programs.” In addition, myriad groups across the country are promoting Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs) and working with local school districts to develop “farm to school” initiatives that would help local farmers as well as improve the quality of the food served in schools.

The question is whether these actions are enough to shift the economy towards a sustainable, health-based food system given the deeply intertwined and diverse set of players involved in the production and marketing of food. In an ecological or systems biology model, all the interacting factors work in concert, each as a complement to the other and each supporting the system as a whole. Right now at the federal level, the Department of Agriculture doesn’t collaborate with the Food and Drug Administration which doesn’t work with Environmental Protection Agency nor the Department of Housing and Urban Development nor the Department of Transportation, and so on—at times, in fact, some of these agencies even work at odds. Then on the local level, public health departments rarely work with school districts or planning commissions, certainly not in regards to the availability of high quality food.

This of course means we need to coordinate these efforts more effectively on every level if we are to improve the health of current and future generations. If you are interested in learning more about these issues and what we can do to address then, please join us on our next CHE Partner call entitled Food Matters: The Impact of Food Systems on Public Health to be held on September 22, 2009.