Food Environment

Food Environment


Welcome to "Food Environment", an emerging paradigm in Environmental Studies – A new way to think about food.

Intended learning outcomes include students gaining the ability to talk about personal and public health, diet and nutrition, and how personal choices and responsibility impact sustainability and the environment.

Food Environment Class at Prince of Songkla University

The environment flows into us through food

Our relationship with the environment is most intimate in our choice of what we put into our bodies. Consider that the environment flows into us in the food we choose to eat – When outside becomes inside.

Defining the food environment – An emerging paradigm

Managing your home and personal food environments [click to "Juice Me" slides]

 A food environment suggests the system boundaries of food production, distribution and consumption.

According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC, 2014), the food environment is mainly:

"The physical presence of food that affects a person’s diet, a person’s proximity to food store locations, the distribution of food stores, food service, and any physical entity by which food may be obtained, or a connected system that allows access to food."

Food environment or "Food environments"

Can food environments be expressed as community food environments, local food environments, sustainable food environments, nutritional food environments, toxic food environments, and even personal food environments?

When considering that our relationship with the food environment is most intimate in our choice of what we put into our bodies, editor and lecturer Peter Coan suggests, "Perhaps we can draw a further useful distinction between an individual's available, or potential, food environment and his/her actual food environment – that is, between the foods a person has the opportunity to eat, and the foods s/he actually eats."

Students in Food Environment class preparing traditional Thai foods without meat, dairy or added sugar

Supporting this idea, Coan notes that corporate supermarkets largely mediate the potential food environment for many people simply by limiting the range of foods available on their shelves, and corporate advertising further distorts the choices and preferences which people have in buying foods – that is, selecting the inputs to their actual food environment, located typically in their kitchens and refrigerators.

Check out Harvard University's T. H. Chan School of Public Health: Healthy Food Environment Recommendations – Complete List

Health, Diet and Nutrition

While conducting research on personal health management for Food Environment, I developed a shortlist of key topics, namely diet, exercise, toxins and stress.

I soon discovered that I was not the first to make this list.

My personal research led me to the story of Dr. David Servan-Schreiber, French physician and neuroscientist, who developed the "Four Pillars" to examine the rising issue of cancer and other chronic diseases through the lens of prevention, rather than treatment.

The "Four Pillars" of anti-cancer

  • Exercise
  • Nutrition
  • Avoid toxins
  • Manage stress

Dr. Servan-Schreiber's best-selling book "Anticancer: A New Way Of Life (2007)" and research-based insights were brought to life by Morgan Freeman, executive producer and narrator of "The C Word", the 2016 documentary.

The C Word

Research by T. Colin Campbell

"You need to know the truth about food and why eating the right way can save your life."

T. Colin Campbell, PhD., Professor Emeritus of Nutritional Biochemistry at Cornell University.

According to Campbell, understanding and implementing a whole food, plant-based diet is scientifically proven to improve health, wellness, and to mitigate many of the chronic illnesses of our time, such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer.

Much more than a diet, Campbell considers living on whole and plant-based foods as, "Living a whole life."

Popular quotes on food and health

  • "Let food be your medicine, and medicine be your food." – Hippocrates
  • "He that takes medicine and neglects diet, wastes the time of his doctor." – Ancient Chinese Proverb
  • "One quarter of what you eat keeps you alive. The other three-quarters keeps your doctor alive." – Ancient Egyptian Proverb
  • "The doctor of the future will no longer treat the human frame with drugs, but rather will cure and prevent disease with nutrition." – Thomas Edison

Popular videos on food and health

Forks Over Knives | Trailer

Food Choices | Trailer

Food Matters | Trailer

TEDx Talks | Exceptional doctors and nutrition experts supporting a plant-based diet

Neal Barnard | TEDxBismarck

T. Colin Campbell | TEDxCornellUniversity

Caldwell Esselstyn | TEDxCambridge

Joel Fuhrman | TEDxCharlottesville

Michael Greger | TEDxSedona

Michael Klaper | TEDxTraverseCity

John McDougall | TEDxFremont

Dean Ornish | TEDxSan Francisco

Other experts supporting a plant-based diet

Sustainable food environment

Among environmental managers, "sustainability" is a foundational idea whereby people consciously and accountably take action in mitigating or avoiding the depletion of natural resources.

A sustainable food environment includes a system of food production, transportation, and consumption, which maintains an ecological balance while meeting our health and nutritional needs.

Sustainable | Trailer

Whole foods vs processed foods

Examples of whole foods

  • Beans
  • Fruits
  • Grains
  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Vegetables

Examples of processed foods

  • Canned foods
  • Dairy products
  • Meat products
  • Processed grains (such as white rice)
  • Refined sugars
  • Refined oils

Case example: What is “white” rice, and is it a "processed" food?

White rice is a processed food. All white rice (milled rice) starts out as brown rice (whole grain rice). In the late 1800’s, a milling process was developed to remove the husk, bran, and germ from brown rice, which gave the rice a smooth texture and increased its shelf life. However, milling also removes most of the rice’s nutrition and health benefits, including fiber, vitamins, and minerals. As the mechanical milling process was further perfected in the 1950’s in Japan, the attractiveness and popularity of white rice spread globally.

Consider other examples of processed grains, such as wheat in the case of 'white flour' versus 'whole wheat' flour.

Toxic food environment

Chemicals in our food system range from man made to those which occur naturally.

Physicians for Social Responsibility

Man-made chemicals that may be harmful to you

  • Chemical fertilizers (petrochemicals, inorganics, etc.)
  • Fungicides
  • Herbicides (agriculture and military defoliants, such as Agent Orange)
  • Pesticides
  • Plastics (such as Bisphenol A or BPA)
  • Preservatives
  • Radiation (irradiated foods, farming near contaminated areas)
  • Stabilizers

Naturally-occurring food toxins that may be harmful to you

Naturally-occurring food toxins (Dolan, Matulka & Burdock, 2009) can be studied from a variety of perspectives. For example, even too much of a healthy food can have a toxic effect on the body. Healthy foods that contain natural toxins can include vegetables, beans and grains.

Other natural toxins can result from spoiled foods or are produced in certain types of moulds and algae. For example, Funji, including some varieties of mushrooms, can be highly toxic to humans. Ergot fungi (Schmale & Munkvold, 2017) found in flowering grass or cereal, such as rye, are linked with physical and mental health issues as far back as the Middle Ages. Metalloids, such as arsenic (see CDC, 2023), are naturally occurring elements strongly linked to public health issues world-wide.

Shortlist of common natural toxins in food.

  • Algae
  • Funji
  • Metalloids
  • Mould

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) provides a database of information about toxic substances and how they affect human health.

According to Harvard University, addressing the complex problems associated with toxic food environments requires urgent communication and collaboration among government, industry and local institutions. As individuals, what steps can we take toward personal and public health responsibility to best mitigate a toxic food environment?

Human Experiment | Trailer

Cowspiracy | Trailer

What the Health | Trailer

Food Deserts

In an article published in Nutrition Digest (2011), the American Nutrition Association (ANA) outlines a “Food Desert” as a geographic location, area or region where fruits, vegetables, and other whole foods are, for the most part, unavailable.

Food deserts are typically located in low income, disadvantaged areas with limited access to healthy, nutritional foods, including farmers’ markets and modern grocery stores offering fresh fruits and vegetables (Nutrition Digest, 2011). For example, a typical food desert is a food environment with fast food chains and convenience stores located at or near gas stations selling processed, imperishable products, such as canned and packaged foods.

Typical canned and processed foods in the rural US

Arguably, a food desert is actually a nutrition desert, meaning that while food is generally available, the food environment does not provide appropriate nourishment to people who rely on these products to survive – That is, fast foods and processed foods which are particularly high in processed sugars, fats, and salt.

To address the issue, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC, 2017) suggests that individuals and communities can create community gardens (CDC, 2011a), share in the upkeep and production of the garden, and organize local farmers’ markets (CDC, 2011b).

Topics for class discussion

  • Can food deserts can be transformed into "Food oases"?
  • Rural and urban food deserts.
  • Urban farming.


  • (ANA, 2017) The Community for Science-Based Nutrition
  • (Barthel & Isendahl, 2013) Urban gardens, agriculture, and water management: Sources of resilience for long-term food security in cities
  • (CDC, 2011a) Healthy Places: Community Gardens
  • (CDC, 2011b) Healthy Places: Farmers Markets, Community Supported Agriculture, and Local Food Distribution
  • (CDC, 2017) Gateway to Health Communication & Social Marketing Practice
  • (Nutrition Digest, 2011) USDA Defines Food Deserts
  • (USDA, 2017) Food Access Research Atlas

Contemporary terms and trends in healthy dietary lifestyles for discussion

  • Fruitarian
  • Juicing
  • Organic (agriculture) – Not using artificial chemicals in the growing of plants and animals (Biology Online, 2018)
  • Plant-based diet
  • Plant-rich diet
  • Raw foods
  • Vegan
  • Vegetarian
  • Whole foods
  • "Whole Life" (Campbell, 2018)
  • WFPB (Whole Food Plant-Based) (Campbell, 2018)

Food environment and the media

  • Who owns the food companies?
  • What marketing strategies are used by major food companies?
  • Do food advertisements tell the truth?
  • Where can we find honest information about food?

Three reasons to think about what we eat

  • For your health and the health of your loved ones.
  • For the environment and whole earth systems.
  • For animals and other sentient life forms.


  • Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR)
  • American Nutrition Association (ANA)
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
  • Harvard University's T. H. Chan School of Public Health
  • National Cancer Institute (NCI)
  • Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR)