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Understanding the food system: Why it matters for food policy

The authors of this report define a food system as an interdependent system of activities and outputs with three interconnected elements: the food supply chain, drivers and outcomes, and people. They then explore the implications of food system activities for health and policy outcomes.

Interconnecting dimensions of the food system

Various interconnected dimensions are introduced as both shaping and being shaped by the food system. These dimensions include:

  • economic: business, farms, transnational companies, production, trade and people
  • political: food policy, legislation, taxation, political decisions and power relations
  • environmental: natural and physical environments, agriculture, pollution and climate
  • health: the influence on eating patterns, nutrition and food safety, and associated impacts on disease and wellness
  • societal: community cohesion, culture, religion and identities 

Food systems and health: policy implications

Policy solutions that address multiple dimensions and elements of the food system are necessary to promote positive health outcomes. Food production, working conditions, climate and consumer health are highlighted as key areas that can be simultaneously influenced by policy. The report also identifies the need for collective action across professions and sectors, bringing together psychology, nutrition, agriculture, transportation and ecology.  

A visual model depicting the interconnecting dimensions of food systems is included, as well as a case study applying these dimensions to wheat as a food commodity.

Use this resource to

  • Facilitate discussion about interconnected dimensions of food systems and impacts on health equity
  • Shift work plans related to food security and insecurity to be more comprehensive to address multiple food system activities
  • Identify opportunities for program and policy action to improve food system elements that promote health

Alignment with NCCDH Work:

Food systems impact health and well-being and should be considered by public health in policy and practice. The NCCDH is exploring food systems as a determinant of health and examining public health’s role in building healthier, more sustainable and just food systems.

The 2024 resource Determining Health: Food systems issue brief is the first NCCDH resource to explore this topic.


Related resources:

Let’s Talk: Health equity

Podcast episode transcript & companion document: Disrupting food insecurity & fat phobia (Mind the Disruption, Season 1, Episode 5)

Structural interventions that affect racial inequities and their impact on population health outcomes: A systematic review


Parsons, K., Hawkes, C., & Wells, R. (2019). Understanding the food system: Why it matters for food policy (Rethinking Food Policy: A Fresh Approach to Policy and Practice, Brief 2). City, University of London, Centre for Food Policy.  

Tags: Food security, Structural determinants, Academic Institution, Document, Report / Document