For years and years, issues surrounding food security were low priority on the global agenda. Until recently, rarely did the subject become an agenda item when the leaders of foreign governments convened to discuss global political and economic issues, or if the issues were raised, they were often an afterthought. However, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic quickly elevated the detrimental impact of not only hunger, but also nutritional deficiencies to new heights. In the era of COVID-19, epidemiological evidence demonstrates that food security, and especially nutritional security, have a demonstrable and material impact. Of course, vaccinations are critical in fighting the disease, but well fed and healthier people fare much better than people with nutritional comorbities other related diseases. Those people who are able to take advantage of adequately nutritional diets do much better in fighting and surviving COVID-19.
Now, with global leaders understanding the significance of food security on productivity and the global economy, we must adjust our understanding of what it looks like to combat food insecurity.
Often times, food security is used as a general term to reflect conditions of hunger, and clearly adequate calorie intake is critical for undernourished people. True food security is more than just the volume of food or calories a person can access, but that must also assume a sustainable, adequate diet focusing on the nutritional needs of people worldwide, especially lower income people in the developing world.
Food and nutritional security is too important to be left just to the food and agriculture industry. Food and nutrition are critical to the political and economic survival of the world. We all must be involved, including the food and agriculture world, but also the private sector, the health and medical world, the NGO community governments worldwide and the United Nations.
The pandemic has shown that those with the best chance of recovery from COVID-19 are not only vaccinated but eat better and participate in lifestyle habits that are key to preventing disease.
A study by Tufts University suggests that two-thirds of COVID-related hospitalizations are attributable to four pre-existing conditions: obesity, diabetes, hypertension and heart failure.
Beneath the COVID-19 pandemic, lies the well-known epidemic of diet-related illnesses. Diets bursting with high-processed foods, sugar and sodium lead to preventable comorbidities that make fighting diseases, such as COVID-19, much more difficult in addition to living with the complications of the condition itself.
Additionally, current efforts to combat food insecurity focus on providing an affordable quantity of calories to overcome hunger, and legacies of structural inequity make it very possible that these meals may not also focus on good nutrition as a key part of food security.
In policy, food security and nutrition deficits are often looked at as isolated problems, but they are intrinsically related. By mandating that nourishment, sustainable practices and nutrition help guide policy around food security, populations at risk will be better equipped to fight infectious diseases and be less likely to develop a diet-related condition.
Outside of the pandemic, diet-related diseases still account for a vast number of deaths and hospitalizations. And even without contracting COVID-19, those with diet-related conditions are at increased risk. Health care systems around the world are being overloaded and beds are filling up with unvaccinated COVID-patients, making it so patients with other conditions cannot receive care.
Simply put, the relationship between food and health care cannot be ignored. The global health, food and agriculture communities must take a holistic approach to supplying food with proper nutrition. They must look past just focusing on quantity of food and adequate calories, but also a comprehensive view towards diet quality. The overall dietary health of society contributes to its ability to overcome disease and combat pandemics. By focusing on food security as an aspect of disease prevention, we can not only help assist in ending this pandemic but be better prepared for the next one.
As the World Health Organization and United Nations Global Committees gather to plan global agendas, they must prioritize on both supplying adequate food supplies for the hungry, but also the nutritional adequacy of the food that is supplies, as well as educational efforts to help people equitably make better food choices where possible. The French lawyer, Jean Anthelme Brillant-Savarin in 1825 once said, “tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are.” Nobody has said it any better since.