Multiple dimensions of sustainable food systems must be considered as organizations work to nourish people and protect the planet.
More than ever before, the discourse around dietary recommendations that optimize health is becoming inextricably linked with sustainability. With sustainable nutrition as an important goal, the agriculture, food systems and health sectors can continue to use advances in science, innovation and technology to become more efficient and sustainable while making nutritious foods available for all. The dairy agricultural community has been a leader in developing and implementing technologies that have lessened the environmental impact of producing and processing nutrient-dense dairy products. During the past 70 years, dairy community efforts have led to a 90% decrease in land use, 63% decrease in greenhouse gas emissions and 65% decrease in water needed to produce the same amount of milk (from 1944–2007).
Sustainable nutrition is a topic with international importance, as countries around the world are faced with addressing the triple burden of malnutrition, obesity and micronutrient deficiencies while protecting finite natural resources. This is one reason the United Nations launched the Sustainable Development Goals with the global aim of drastically decreasing poverty, hunger, climate change and inequality by 2030. Within these goals is a focus to end hunger, improve health and well-being and promote sustainable agriculture. At every level, health and sustainable food systems are linked. Moving into the future, it is inevitable that nutrition recommendations and guidelines will integrate sustainability.
Compelling evidence links food insecurity to poor health outcomes, heightening the urgency to seek solutions. With many children and adolescents being overweight and undernourished, access to nutritious and wholesome foods as well as nutrition education is essential to help children reach their full health potential as adults. Recommendations put forward to improve healthy eating serve as a catalyst for public policy that may ultimately determine the food choices available to the most vulnerable populations through nutrition assistance programs.
One example of this critical safety net is school meal programs. Research suggests that eating school breakfast every day is associated with healthier dietary intakes among U.S. schoolchildren, particularly increased intakes of vegetables, fruits, whole grains and dairy. In addition to improving overall nutrient intake, consumption specifically of vegetables, fruits or dairy products made readily available in school meal programs is associated with improved academic and health outcomes among children and adolescents.
Sustaining the environment is critical; equally important is addressing the inequities of food affordability, access and availability in food system models. Dietary recommendations and food policy should not be solely based on the environmental dimension of sustainability and should be carefully formed. Economics, nutrition, culture and other sociological factors must be considered in relevant policies when planning ways to feed the growing population. A multidimensional approach is necessary to build resilient, sustainable food systems that support healthy communities. This concept is reinforced by the recent release of the Lancet Commission on Obesity report, The Global Syndemic of Obesity, Undernutrition, and Climate Change, which states that synergistic actions will be essential to achieve planetary health, defined as the health and well-being of humans and the natural environments they depend on.
Nutrition education and food literacy resources available from HealthyEating.org, support sustainable nutrition strategies. Reinforcing concepts such as dietary patterns for health, food waste reduction at multiple grade levels and family touch points helps build understanding and values that lead to healthier eating habits and less wasted food.
Reducing Food Waste and promoting consumption of healthy school meal options by incorporating the evidence-based principles and practices of the Smarter Lunchroom Movement is another sustainable nutrition strategy. Changing the way food choices are presented nudges students to make healthier choices on their
Understanding the food system and where food comes from is an important part of nutrition education. HealthyEating.org offers a variety of Farm-to-You nutrition education opportunities that enhance knowledge of agriculture, including how milk and dairy foods are produced and how they
contribute to healthy eating.