Multiple dimensions of sustainable food systems must be considered as organizations work to nourish people and protect the planet.
As global temperature rise and climate-related events increase, there is mounting pressure to build sustainable and resilient food systems. It is very clear that how we produce and consume food has implications not only for the health of people, but is closely connected to the health of animals, as well as our shared environment. Referred to as ‘One Health’, this collaborative, multi-sectoral, and transdisciplinary approach aims to achieve optimal health outcomes while recognizing the interconnection between people, animals, plants, soil and the planet. In addition to these solutions, concern about the future of the planet has increasing numbers of people aligning their personal food and lifestyle choices for sustainable living as a way to effect change.
While working within our planetary boundaries to care for the environment is critically important for the long-term health of the planet, ensuring that our approaches support human health and thriving communities is also essential. It is vital to find sustainable solutions to preserve Earth’s finite resources, through multiple strategies that include government, private corporations and individual changes to help regulate the stability and resiliency of the Earth’s system, while also ensuring people can obtain the high-quality food to live healthy, prosperous and productive lives. This will be even more important in the coming years, as global leaders work together to sustainably nourish a growing population.
Sustainable nutrition is a topic of global importance, as people everywhere struggle to address rising rates of chronic diseases and nutrient deficiencies while also preserving limited natural resources. Sustainable nutrition means ensuring wholesome,
nutrient-dense foods are accessible, affordable and culturally relevant while also preserving environmental resources and supporting local communities. Healthy diets help protect against the devastating effects of malnutrition and non-communicable
diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer.
While animal-sourced food production is being scrutinized as to its role in climate change, restricting these sources of high quality protein is likely to have an unintended, negative impact on human health, and worsen inequalities and undernutrition, including child undernutrition, which can have life-long consequences. Removing dairy cows that are a part of regenerative agricultural systems, for example, would have minimal impact on greenhouse gas emissions as compared to the significant carbon emissions produced by fossil fuel transportation, while greatly reducing the availability of several important dietary nutrients, including calcium and vitamin D, which are already long-standing under consumed nutrients in the American diet.
Additionally, dairy foods like milk provide many essential nutrients needed for health, including high-quality protein, calcium, vitamin D, vitamin A, riboflavin, niacin, zinc, selenium, iodine, potassium, vitamins B5 and B12. Scientific evidence supports the critical role of milk and dairy foods in global nutrition and health, so barriers to accessing nutrient-dense foods like dairy foods could worsen current nutrient gaps and the growing issue of malnutrition. And although dairy provides important nutrition through the life stages, it is particularly important for nourishing children, which is why at least 160 million children around the world currently receive and benefit from dedicated school milk programs. This contribution is important to all children, but especially those in marginalized and underserved communities who are already struggling to access nutritious foods.
Animal and plant-foods should not be thought of as competing entities, but rather as synergistic food sources that provide different though complementary nutritional, social, economic, and environmental benefits. Instead of removing animal-source foods, the focus must shift to prioritizing and supporting sustainable solutions that enable affordability and accessibility of nutritious foods such as milk and dairy, fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains and high quality animal and plant-based proteins. This approach will deliver nutrition equity and foster healthier people, but it is not a simple solution.
Solutions will require multisector collaboration and coordination at all levels—and new thinking. Rather than labeling foods and food groups as good or bad, we can instead look at the broader spectrum of sustainable nutrition, that takes into account how people produce, access, and ultimately consume nutritious foods. Reducing barriers and supporting access to affordable, nutrient-dense foods can close nutrient gaps that exist in many American diets and around the globe. Additionally, finding innovative solutions to ensure that all people can enjoy wholesome, nutritious foods like fruit, vegetables, dairy and whole grains while reducing consumption of highly processed foods that are high in calories but lack vital nutrients, will go a long way in improving overall health and well-being.
Everyone can play a role in ensuring people have access to sustainable, healthy diets by advocating for programs that support access to nutrient-dense foods that promote good health. Making sure people are supported and able to access nutritious and culturally appropriate foods regardless of race, education, gender, employment, ability or community is a core component of sustainable nutrition and vital to achieving nutrition equity.
Ensuring access to healthy food is just one piece of the puzzle. Learning about nutrition and how food fuels the body and supports health is also important, as it helps equip children and families with the knowledge and tools needed to establish lifelong healthy eating habits. As educators, health and foodservice professionals, community leaders and influencers, the role each of us plays in supporting nutrition education is key to building healthier communities.
Let’s Eat Healthy nutrition education and food literacy resources are designed to increase understanding and improve healthy behaviors. These science-based educational resources help empower people to select healthier food choices, reduce food waste and increase understanding of food. The wide variety of resources includes:
Teaching nutrition education helps each of us be part of the solution to address sustainable nutrition. In addition, joining the Let’s Eat Healthy movement builds a network of people with shared values and expertise that are working together to elevate the health of children and families through the pursuit of lifelong healthy eating habits. The work to be done is more than one organization can accomplish on its own, so it is vital for people to come together to support healthier communities in California and beyond. Visit HealthyEating.org/Join.
Bessie O'Connor, RDN, explains how school meals provide a critical access point for nutritious foodsWatch here
Kristal Shelden, RDN, explains what diet quality is and what makes up a high-quality diet.Watch here
Studies show that food insecurity and poor health are closely linked. Read this blog to learn more.