Food Systems: What they are, why they matter
It’s time to transform the way the world produces, consumes and thinks about food. Our children’s nutrition and well-being depend on it.
Two in three children between the ages of 6 months and two years are not getting the nutrients and food they need for healthy growth and development. Sadly, there has been no progress in improving children’s diets in the last decade.
The poor quality of young children’s diets is the major driver of all forms of malnutrition – stunting, wasting, micronutrient deficiencies, overweight and obesity – and one of the greatest obstacles to ensure children not only survive, but thrive. Yet, change is possible with the right commitments and investments.
Read UNICEF’s latest global report on nutrition: ‘Fed to fail: The crisis of diets in early childhood’
At the centre of this challenge is a broken food system that fails to provide children with the diets they need to grow healthy and that is badly impacting the planet. But what exactly do we mean when we talk about ‘food systems’? Why do they matter for children? And what needs to change?
What are food systems?
Food systems are the public policy decisions; the national and global systems and supply chains; and the individuals and groups – public and private – that influence what we eat.
They are important for two key reasons:
- What we eat – our diets – is one of the biggest drivers of health and well-being. This is especially the case for children. Good nutrition at every stage of a child’s life is vital to ensure they grow, develop, and learn to reach their full potential.
- Current food systems – including production, farming, processing and global supply chains – have an enormous impact on our planet, driving climate change and threatening the environment.
Why do food systems need reform?
A staggering two in three children between the ages of 6 months and two years are not getting the diverse diets they need to grow up well, putting them at risk of malnutrition. Food systems are one of the major drivers of this.
Too often driven by profit over purpose, decisions about what food is produced and how that food is processed, packaged, and promoted undermine the quality of what children eat. The most nutritious food is often expensive, putting it out of reach for many households, while unhealthy alternatives are readily available and heavily marketed.
Conflict, climate change, environmental crises and emergencies are also making food systems fragile. As a result, millions of children do not have safe and regular access to nutritious food to the extent that famine – which should be consigned to history – looms again.
Food systems are threatening the health of our planet. Industrial food production contributes a third of greenhouse gas emissions globally, and its heavy use of fresh water, fertilizers, and pesticides has an immense ecological impact. This creates a vicious cycle of environmental degradation that further harms children’s access to safe, healthy and nutritious food.
By better understanding the significance of food systems, and joining forces with children and young people, we can deliver good nutrition and a healthier planet for every child.
Making change happen
Action on food systems can transform this situation – progress is possible. For example, over the past two decades, the number of undernourished children has fallen by one-third.
We know we can continue this progress through collective action to:
- Improve the quality of what children eat. This includes mandatory quality standards for children’s food, public policies that promote healthy diets, and supply-chain interventions to fortify staple foods for young children.
- Improve the quality of children’s food environments – where they live, learn and eat. This includes ending unhealthy food marketing that targets children, serving better food in schools, and improving food labeling.
- Improve feeding practices – especially in early childhood. This includes protecting, promoting and supporting breastfeeding and encouraging healthy food practices through health, education and social protection systems.
It is also vital that action is taken to minimize the environmental damage of food systems and to reduce their carbon footprint. This has a critical role to play on the road to COP 26 – the 2021 UN climate conference. Healthy diets must be nutritious, affordable and sustainable.
The Food Systems Summit 2021
This is a critical moment to listen to the voices of children and young people. Not only does their future depend on a radical overhaul of our food systems, but they also have some of the best and brightest ideas about how these systems can better serve people and our planet.
The UN Food Systems Summit, held during the UN General Assembly in New York in September 2021, was an important opportunity to demonstrate UNICEF’s commitment to support for food systems transformations. By building on the Summit commitments UNICEF will work alongside partners and drive concrete action to:
- Increase the availability and affordability of nutritious foods – including fruits, vegetables, eggs, fish meat and fortified foods – by incentivizing their production, distribution, and retailing.
- Implementing national standards and legislation to protect young children from unhealthy processed and ultra-processed foods and beverages and to end harmful marketing practices targeting children and families.
- Increase the desirability of nutritious and safe foods through multiple communication channels including digital media to reach parents and children with easy to understand, coherent information.
Just as the drivers of poor diets are multifaceted, so are the solutions. To deliver nutritious, safe, and affordable diets to every child, governments, donors, civil society organizations and development actors must work hand-in-hand to transform food, health and social protection systems by leading ten key actions.