Editor's note: Last month, we introduced the Alliance for a Healthier World’s four thematic areas – food & nutrition security, healthy environments, gender equity & justice, and transformative technologies & institutions. This month, we review the Food & Nutrition security thematic area and explain how the work of this team supports health equity.
Story illustration and icon for AHW's Food & Nutrition Security thematic priority. © Alliance for a Healthier World
Well Nourished People in All Communities = Human Capital + Thriving Societies
From hunger to obesity, the effects of malnutrition are detrimental to our health, as individuals and as communities. Nutrition is one of the core building blocks of human capital - those with sufficient nutrition have better physical work capacity, health and cognitive development. Ensuring that everyone is food secure and well-nourished contributes to communities and societies that thrive.
The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights established adequate health, including adequate food, as a basic human right. This rights-based approach advocates that no one is left behind and is a driving force behind AHW’s Food & Nutrition Security theme, one of our four priority areas.
At the 1996 World Food Summit, the FAO (Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations) defined food security as “when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.”
The types of food we eat day-to-day affects the long-term nourishment of our body. Food selection is influenced by multiple factors including availability, income, convenience, tradition, culture and knowledge. In recent years, unhealthy diets have become a significant risk factor for individuals at all incomes and are one of the largest contributors to morbidity and mortality. The environments in which we grow, distribute, and market food, paired with the economic and social environment in which we live, are a part of a complex and rapidly changing food system.
This wide-reaching system includes how food is produced, packaged, transported, advertised, priced, and labelled, and forms the framework in which people make decisions every day that affect their health and wellbeing. There are many pressures on the food system - including climate change, population pressures, and geopolitical conflicts - making this a complex challenge to shift towards an improved system that contributes to environmental sustainability, health and nutrition, and social justice.
Alliance's Approach to Food System Challenges
To address global inequities within this system, the Alliance’s Food & Nutrition Security thematic area incorporates a range of multidisciplinary perspectives to address both human and planetary health challenges. It also recognizes food as a personal matter that influences our daily lives and cultures.
We are all experts of food. We eat every day. Everyone has food they like and don’t like. When they cannot afford or access healthy food, that’s when it affects equity.
Under this thematic area, we are bringing together faculty, students and staff across Johns Hopkins in a broad, systematic way to increase the profile of food security and nutrition. This involves connecting many disciplines – ethics, economics, environmental health and sciences, international development, public health, agriculture, sociology, creative arts and other schools of thought – in order to succeed.
For a closer look at the theme questions we have identified for multidisciplinary research, check our April 2018 article, Moving the Needle on Improving Food & Nutrition Security.
Integrating other determinants of Health Equity
Our work also integrates other AHW thematic priorities. For example, we need:
Healthy environments to ensure the natural resources needed for a robust food system are conserved for healthy landscapes and ecosystems.
Gender equity and justice comes into play for women, who tend to be more susceptible to food insecurity and have unique nutritional needs. Furthermore, women are the stewards of food and nutrition worldwide and are often significant figureheads in household eating.
We draw on the work of the transformative technologies and institutions for tools to improve access to food and nutrition. For example, cells phones help to level the economic playing field for smallholder farmers by providing real-time information on market prices or for urban dwellers who order their pre-cooked, prepared food for delivery on a daily basis.
Building Cross Sector Partnerships
We are building partnerships across sectors and with international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to support evidence-based and country-focused policy making on systems-wide approaches for improving nutrition and equity for vulnerable, marginalized, and underserved populations across the globe. In doing so, we are ramping up opportunities for Johns Hopkins faculty, staff and students to actively inform the global nutrition and food systems agenda through greater understanding of the policy making processes of the United Nations (UN) agencies and mechanisms dedicated to working on food, agriculture and nutrition.
Taking on the Challenge
Transforming the food system to be more sustainable, equitable and healthy is not an easy road to take, and we will need many different solutions at the local, national and global levels. Ensuring that everyone is food secure and well-nourished is important for the human capital we need to create a just and healthier world.
You can learn more about this area on the Food & Nutrition Security webpage.
Editor's note: Thanks also Abigail Reich for helping to prepare this article.
Jessica Fanzo is the AHW Theme Leader for Food & Nutrition Security, and Bloomberg Distinguished Associate Professor of Global Food & Agricultural Policy and Ethics at the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), the Berman Institute of Bioethics, and the Department of International Health of the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University.