Sustainable Food Systems for Public Health

Seedlings in small pots ready for planting

Travertine Orndorff Garcia

Master’s Student in Nutritional Sciences

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Food is a powerful tool for building healthier communities—connecting us with our environment, our bodies, and each other. But these connections are weakening, evident in declining environmental quality, increasing burden of chronic disease, and persistent disparities in food access.

Food production is a leading cause of climate change.1 Poor diet poses a greater risk to human illness and death than “unsafe sex, and alcohol, drug, and tobacco use combined.”1 And in 2018, 15 million American households were food insecure.2

Public health researchers, practitioners, and advocates have a responsibility to lead in this movement and incorporate food systems approaches into the work.

These issues are interconnected and are part of a growing body of evidence demonstrating the need for restructuring of global food activities into a sustainable, equitable, health-promoting system.3,4 As public health researchers, practitioners, and advocates, we have a responsibility to be leaders in this movement and to incorporate food systems approaches into the work we do.

What Is a Food System?

The food system encompasses all activities related to production, processing, distribution, preparation, consumption, and disposal of food, the complex interactions between these elements, and “the broader economic, societal, and natural environments in which they are embedded.”3 Each element influences the others and interacts with other systems like agricultural, health, and political systems. Food systems exists on different scales, from local to regional to global. A systems approach to complex issues in food and health helps us see how a change in one system will affect another, where to intervene, and how our interventions will play out in the bigger picture.

Food Systems in Public Health

Despite the interdisciplinary nature of public health, we tend to address food systems issues in isolation. For example:

  • Environmental health scientists investigate occupational exposure to herbicides and pesticides used excessively in industrial agriculture;
  • Social scientists work to understand and alleviate the social determinants underlying inequitable access to food;
  • Nutritionists examine dietary patterns produced by industrialized food systems;
  • Health care administrators strategize a health care system structured to accommodate growing chronic disease burdens produced by dietary and occupational exposures
  • Statisticians quantify and model impacts of modern food production on climate change and climate change on human health

This work is necessary but even at its most successful can only mitigate specific symptoms of more complex problems.3,4

Traditional approaches often fail to incorporate diverse perspectives and often do not recognize how apparent solutions actually exacerbate problems

Food systems issues are difficult to address because they have multiple causes, can be approached from multiple perspectives, and have multiple possible solutions.5 Traditional scientific approaches are ineffective in food systems work because they often fail to incorporate diverse perspectives and often do not recognize how apparent solutions actually exacerbate problems within the context of larger systems, including how systems change over time.5 Food systems solutions require interdisciplinary, systems-thinking approaches and are most likely to succeed when multiple stakeholders are involved.3,4

The EAT-Lancet Commission

Earlier this year, The Lancet’s monumental report Food in the Anthropocene1 drew on broad scientific expertise to examine the relationship between environmental impacts of food production and health impacts of current dietary patterns. Following an analysis of current trends, the commission outlined a strategic framework for achieving environmentally sustainable, nutritionally sound diets through rapid, global food systems transformation. While this work certainly does not address every food systems issue, it is a good example of a collaborative, food systems approach to a public health issue.

Sustainable Food Systems at Michigan

We can create positive change in the food system right here in our own communities. The University of Michigan is home to a strong community of sustainable food systems advocates. Michigan Dining centers efforts around sourcing local and sustainable food, composting, reducing food waste, and providing education in dining halls, cafes, markets, and catering services across campus. The university’s Sustainable Food Program (UMSFP)—a student organization—offers small grants for projects, events, and leadership development, facilitates collaborative leadership among student groups, and hosts an annual Harvest Festival where students can find ways to get involved in sustainable food systems work. The university’s Sustainable Food Systems Initiative (SFSI) promotes research and formal education through an undergraduate minor, a graduate certificate, the annual Fast Food for Thought event, and the Food Literacy for All course.

University of Michigan School of Public Health faculty, staff, and students are engaged in all of these initiatives. What are you waiting for? We’ve already set a plate at the table for you!


  1. Willett, Walter, et al., "Food in the Anthropocene: The EAT–Lancet Commission on Healthy Diets from Sustainable Food Systems," The Lancet 393/10170 (February 2019): 447-492.
  2. Food Security in the US: Key Statistics and Graphics,” Economic Research Service, USDA (August 2019).
  3. Nguyen, Hahn, "Sustainable Food Systems: Concept and Framework," Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2018).
  4. Jones, Andrew, and Gebisa Ejeta, "A New Global Agenda for Nutrition and Health: The Importance of Agriculture and Food Systems," Bulletin of the World Health Organization 94 (2015): 228-229.
  5. "Complex or 'Wicked Issues,'" Center for Economic and Community Development, College of Agricultural Sciences, Penn State University.

About the Author

Travertine GarciaTravertine Garcia is a master’s student in Nutritional Sciences at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. She is interested in understanding public health issues through a food-systems lens and developing interventions that incorporate nutrition, food security, and sustainable development. Her current research focuses on cooking-skills interventions. Travertine is co-president of the University of Michigan Sustainable Food Program (UMSFP), which is sponsored by Michigan Dining and led by a board of undergraduate and graduate students.