The University is embarking on an ambitious new plan aimed at empowering people to upgrade their eating habits. Don’t worry, you’ll still be able to get French fries and indulgent desserts when you want them, but Harvard’s Sustainable Healthful Food Standards, released today, are hoping to show you the path to better health — for you, and the planet.
“In today’s world, the situation is not encouraging from a planetary or human health standpoint,” said Walter Willett, Fredrick John Stare Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition at the T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “And of course these are not totally distinct. Human health depends on a healthy planet.”
Willett, who was faculty co-chair of the multidisciplinary faculty committee convened to develop the new standards, also co-chaired the EAT-Lancet Commission, a groundbreaking report presented in Oslo in January that brought together 37 of the world’s leading experts on nutrition, agriculture, biodiversity, and the environment to reach a scientific consensus on what constitutes and healthy and sustainable diet. “Our basic task was to see if there is a way to achieve a healthy diet for everyone and also get back on track to stay within the planetary boundaries that have been identified by work in the earth sciences,” Willett said.
The Harvard food standards use the same body of data as EAT-Lancet to set goals that over time will measurably increase access to healthy, culturally appropriate foods for students, faculty, staff, and visitors while also enhancing food literacy and lessening the University’s impact on land, air, and water. The standards were also informed by Menus of Change principles, a collaboration led by the Culinary Institute of America and the Harvard Chan School, as well as the set of values underlying the Good Food Purchasing Program recently passed by the Boston City Council. Among the objectives of the new initiative are to get major on-campus food-service providers to track food purchases by category to help monitor climate impacts, to prioritize certified-sustainable seafood and regional purchases, and to curtail wasted food and single-use containers and utensils while reducing the use of food treated with antibiotics and chemicals, increasing healthy choices, and considering the welfare of workers, communities, and animals all along the food chain.
“If we don’t shift our diets to healthier and more sustainable, it’s going to take an immense toll,” said the other faculty co-chair, Aaron Bernstein, instructor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, co-director of the Center for Climate, Health, and Global Environment at the School of Public Health, and an associate at the Harvard University Center for the Environment.
The statistics are alarming. “We still have close to a billion people on the planet who are undernourished,” Willett said. “And about 2 billion who are obese or overweight. And the quality of the diet for most other people is still poor and will lead to premature death from cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes and its complications.”