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Promoting safe and nutritious food selection, preparation and storage practices.

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Nutrition Resource Centre

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Taking a food systems approach

Taking a food systems approach
 Our next #30in30 #nutritionmonth blog post is from Anna Savelyeva, MSc Food Policy. Thank you for submitting!
 
Modern food systems are extremely complex. Food systems are context-specific and are shaped by the processes and actors involved in food supply chains at a certain geographic scale, from food production to consumption. Though they are dependent on international trade agreements, food systems are shaped by domestic policies and are regionally defined.
 
Population diets have shifted significantly since the industrialization of agriculture in the late nineteenth century. More recently, shifts toward ‘value-added processing’ along with rapid transformations of the global economy in the 1950s have created easily accessible, available, and affordable processed foods globally. Dr. Barry Popkin hypothesizes that ‘nutrition transitions’ in populations often follow periods of rapid urbanization, economic growth, technological change, and cultural transformations.

Adding to the complexity of food systems, diet-related non-communicable diseases have complex risk factors and causal pathways. Individual nutrition outcomes are shaped by food environments found within communities and societies, which are based within food systems on a larger scale. Obesity, for example, is influenced by seven major risk clusters:


Source: ‘Tackling obesities: future choices’, Foresight Report (2007)
 
Using a food systems perspective in public health nutrition is crucial in addressing the complex relationship between food systems and diet-related chronic disease. Not only is a food systems approach essential in public health nutrition, individual behaviour change interventions are less effective in addressing the social determinants shaping individual nutritional choices. Various frameworks have been developed by public health professionals and researchers in order to create benchmarks for best practice and to create comprehensive databases of effective food and nutrition policies worldwide. Dr. Mike Rayner, for example, has developed a population-based food systems approach to improving food marketing practices, often referred to as ‘the four P’s’: product, promotion, place, and price.
 
INFORMAS (International Network for Food and Obesity/Non-Communicable Diseases Research, Monitoring and Action Support) is a network of organizations and researchers seeking to develop evidence-based benchmarks of effective policies and interventions improving food environments.
 
Using an approach similar to the one proposed by Dr. Rayner, World Cancer Research Fund International (WCRF) has developed the NOURISHING Framework for Healthy Diets in order to provide a comprehensive database of national policies worldwide focusing on three domains of dietary change: food environments, food systems, and individual behaviour change. Food environment policies include nutrition labelling, institutional procurement standards, taxation and fiscal policy, advertising and marketing restrictions, improving the quality of the food supply, and setting incentives for improved retail environments. Food system policies include examples of whole-of-society and whole-of-government policies aiming to improve population diets. Individual behaviour change policies include public awareness campaigns, nutrition counselling, and nutrition education. WCRF emphasizes the importance of using a combination of policies across the three outlined domains to improve population diets; a comprehensive, food systems approach is necessary to address the complexity of diet-related non-communicable diseases. Dr. Corinna Hawkes, Head of Policy and Public Affairs at WCRF, stresses in her research the importance of policy coherence between the various governmental policies having an impact on population diets.
 
Notable Canadian examples featured in WCRF’s NOURISHING Framework database includes the Canadian Salt Reduction Strategy, mandatory labelling of trans fats, school fruit and vegetable programs in British Columbia, Manitoba, and Northern Ontario, nutrient criteria guidance for foods and beverages in schools, and the Nutrition Facts Education Campaign. Learning from policy successes is as important as identifying apparent gaps in policy areas being targeted by other countries facing similar nutrition-related issues as Canadians.
 
Public health practitioners can harness existing food systems approaches and databases in their advocacy efforts. Evidence of effective policy is crucial in policy development and implementation processes. Though individual behaviour change is an important component of public health nutrition, food environment and food system approaches more effectively address the complexity of risk factors associated with diet-related chronic disease. We must learn from examples of international efforts aiming to improve food systems for healthy diets to drive policy change to improve nutritional outcomes of the Canadian population.

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