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Determining Health: Food systems issue brief

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This issue brief explores the connections between food systems and human health and well-being in the Canadian context, as part of the Determining Health series. The resource is divided into four sections.

Section 1 introduces food systems and their major components, defining food systems as the “webs of activities, people, institutions and processes that bring food from the fields, forests and waters to our plates, and beyond” (p. 4). It further describes the three major components of food systems: (a) the food supply chain, (b) people and institutions, and (c) food system drivers and outcomes. It also defines key food system-related terms, including food environments, food security, and food loss and waste.

Section 2 explains why food systems matter for public health policy and practice. It describes their importance for meeting populations’ nutritional needs and highlights key issues with Canada’s industrial food systems, the dominant type of food system in the country.

Section 3 draws on peer-reviewed and grey literature from 42 sources to explain five pathways linking industrial food systems to health inequities, with a focus on the Canadian context:

  1. Precarious employment and hazardous working conditions
  2. Climate change
  3. Disruption of Indigenous food systems
  4. Food policies influencing food environments
  5. Food advertising and marketing

For example, precarious employment and hazardous working conditions compromise the health of migrant farm workers through factors such as limited safety regulations, substandard housing, exposure to pesticides and limited access to health care. Section 3 also highlights knowledge gaps related to the health implications of food systems in Canada. One example is the need for more evidence on how structural and systemic racism influence food environments.

Section 4 concludes the document and underscores that all public health practitioners and organizations have a role in helping build healthier, more sustainable and just food systems.  

This issue brief is intended for public health practitioners, decision-makers, researchers and students looking to learn about the public health relevance of (industrial) food systems and the urgent need for their transformation.

Use this resource to

  • Build understanding of food systems and their major components
  • Facilitate discussion on how industrial food systems contribute to health inequities in the Canadian context
  • Support food system-related public health interventions


Related resources:

Determining Health: Decent work issue brief

Association between household food insecurity and mortality in Canada: A population-based retrospect

See other resources in the Determining Health series.


National Collaborating Centre for Determinants of Health. (2024). Determining Health: Food systems issue brief. Antigonish, NS: NCCDH, St. Francis Xavier University.

Tags: Food security, Structural determinants, Document, Report / Document, Determining Health