An initiative of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Bold Solutions for Healthier Kids and a Healthier Planet

Climate change


October 13th, 2021


Obesity, hunger, and climate change are inextricably connected. These three pandemics represent the “Global Syndemic” that impacts people’s health in every country worldwide and the health of our planet.

The high prevalence of hunger and obesity among young people is particularly alarming, as both conditions impair children’s development and increase risk for chronic diseases.

We spoke with Vivica Kraak, PhD, RDN, Associate Professor of Food and Nutrition Policy at Virginia Tech, and co-author of Lancet Commission’s 2019 Global Syndemic of Obesity, Undernutrition, And Climate Change report, about how we can address these issues to benefit both children’s and the planet’s health today and in the future.

"Children have the right to grow up in a healthy environment. It’s our responsibility as adults and leaders to protect their health and our planet now—and for generations to come."

Vivica Kraak, PhD, RDN, Associate Professor of Food and Nutrition Policy at Virginia Tech


What is driving the Global Syndemic?

There are several common drivers, including our transportation systems, urban design practices, and even weak policies developed by governments. But our food systems, or how we grow, transport, sell, and consume and dispose of food, are one of the most significant drivers of the Global Syndemic.

That’s because they are unhealthy—largely designed to support a diet high in ultra-processed foods, sugary beverages and red meat, which promote diseases including obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cancers. And our current food systems are unsustainable—how we produce food, especially foods from animals, drives greenhouse gas emissions that harm the environment and contribute to conditions such as extreme weather and drought, which impact crops and the food supply.

A recent study found that 34% of greenhouse gas emissions are driven by the world’s food systems.


Who’s most impacted by the Global Syndemic?

These challenges affect all of us but the burden is not evenly distributed, which makes it an equity issue. Some of us experience it more intensely, depending on where we live or work, our race, level of income, or current health.

People of color and children and families living in poverty and experiencing food insecurity are particularly impacted.

For example, in the United States, racism has permeated our communities and institutions—not only our legal system and our educational system, but also how our communities have been planned, who has access to resources, and who can get financing to buy a house or land.

All of this impacts health and these inequities are one reason we see higher rates of obesity and food insecurity among children of color.


How do we tackle these challenges?

One of the best things we can do is shift to a planet-friendly diet.

That means focusing more on fresh, minimally processed, and plant-based foods, such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes. And consuming less red meat and dairy. That’s better for our health and better for the planet.

Video transcript, from Vivica Kraak, Associate Professor of Food and Nutrition Policy at Virginia Tech: “Our current food systems are unsustainable, they’re unhealthy, they’re driving greenhouse gas emissions. They’re driving poor diet, they’re driving obesity and chronic diseases. So dietary shift is one of the most substantial things that we can do–shifting our diet from primarily red meat to a minimally processed plant-based diet.”


What are we doing well? What are some things we can do better?

I think one of the best things we’ve done here in the United States is implement strong nutrition standards for school meals. That means children have access to good quality food in school, which helps them learn and grow.

And in the United States alone, school meals reach over 30 million kids, including a high percentage who are from families with low incomes.

So aligning school meals with a planet-friendly diet has great potential. If we do a better job of offering and marketing appealing, healthy plant-based meals in schools, kids will eat them.

The U.S. government could also do a much better job at supporting sustainable dietary principles through national dietary guidelines that are healthy and environmentally and socially sustainable.

Other countries—such as Brazil, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Norway, and Qatar—have incorporated environmental sustainability principles into their guidelines. That has not yet occurred in the United States.

The administration could also consider ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Currently, we are the only remaining country in the world that has not ratified this international treaty to protect children’s right to healthy foods, health, and supportive environments.

These ideas are just a start. We need to apply the science and collaborate across borders to use a systems approach to create bold new solutions that prioritize children’s health and reverse the impacts of climate change.

[Note: A study published in Health Affairs finds that aligning national nutrition standards for school meals with the EAT-Lancet Commission’s planetary health diet would provide high-quality nutrition for kids, reduce food costs, and benefit the environment.]


How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the Global Syndemic?

COVID-19 has brought obesity and undernutrition to the fore.

On one hand, obesity is a risk factor for the COVID-19 virus and that’s endangering a lot of lives. On the other hand, many families are dealing with financial challenges and other issues that limit their access to high-quality nutritious foods.

The good news is there’s been some powerful innovation, especially on the part of schools, districts, and partners to address child hunger and nutrition.

Offering universal healthy meals even when school doors are closed is a win. And what we need now is strong legislation to ensure these meals continue beyond the COVID-19 crisis. Access to daily healthy, nutritious meals shouldn’t take a pandemic—it should be a child’s right.

Video transcript, from Vivica Kraak, Associate Professor of Food and Nutrition Policy at Virginia Tech: “Our food system vulnerabilities have really been exposed due to COVID, but it’s allowed different groups working on various solutions to really work across silos and work across disciplines. So I think it’s forcing us to use equity, and justice, and hopefully human rights, so that we can really address many of the complex drivers of the problems that we’re facing.”


What’s your message for policymakers?

Children have the right to grow up in a healthy environment. It’s our responsibility as adults and leaders to protect their health and our planet now—and for generations to come.

So we really need a paradigm shift.

Our policy responses to date are inadequate; we can’t solve these challenges in isolation. We need bold solutions that address hunger, obesity, and climate change at the same time.

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