Finally: A Textbook on Health and the American Food System

Finally: A Textbook on Health and the American Food System
From, by Olivia Delia

The first comprehensive textbook of its kind, Introduction to the U.S. Food System: Public Health, Environment, and Equity, edited by Roni Neff, fills what has long been a conspicuous gap in interdisciplinary academic studies: It integrates the biological, ecological, social, and public health implications of our intricate food system by both informing and challenging the reader to consider how the many components of our food system affect individual and community life. Readers will come away well-equipped to engage in the integrated and interdisciplinary approaches needed to create a sustainable and healthy future.

The textbook quotes writer and environmental activist Wendell Berry to answer why understanding—and consciously participating in—this food network matters: “Eaters … must understand that eating takes place inescapably in the world, that it is inescapably an agricultural act, and how we eat determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used.”

Comprised of contributions from 106 food system experts including Neff, the 18-chapter, 576-page work was a project of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF) at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. According to CLF, the textbook exists in response to a growing demand for material at the advanced undergraduate and graduate levels on the multi-layered externalities of the food system.

Chapter One describes the landscape of the American food system: It serves a population of 314 million, selling more than US$1.8 trillion in goods and services each year—including 9 billion livestock. The U.S. food system is responsible for 80 percent of consumptive water use, 52 percent of U.S. land use, 16 percent of energy use, one-fifth of U.S. private sector jobs (about one and a half times that of healthcare), and more than 13 percent of U.S. gross domestic product (GDP). Meanwhile, more than 36 percent of American adults are obese and 15 percent of all Americans are food insecure, according to the textbook.

The text covers issues on public health, ecological impact, implications for communities, equity, and society related to the U.S. food system. Stories and examples of supply, demand, cost, stakeholder interests, history, power, politics and policy, ethics, and culture provide knowledge on transforming policy ideas into legislative realities, chicken farming, food writing, and more.

This textbook is an anthology of problems faced by the U.S. food system. The scope of challenges is presented in an unintimidating manner, for any reader, and in the hope that students will receive much-needed answers in order to advance the U.S. toward a more livable future.

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