A Food Environment Typology for Global Application


by Shauna Downs, Selena Ahmed and Anna Herforth | June 1, 2020

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The food environment determines what people can eat. It contains the total scope of options within which consumers make decisions about which foods to acquire, prepare and consume. Therefore, it is a critical place in the food system to implement interventions to support sustainable diets and address the global syndemic of obesity, undernutrition, and climate change. We are increasingly realizing the importance of evaluating the food environment for enhancing diets for both human and planetary health.

Much of the food environment research to date has focused on market food environments. We developed a food environment typology that includes wild and cultivated food environments, in addition to formal and informal built food environments. This conceptualization better reflects the diverse food environments in communities around the world, including in rural and urban areas of low-, middle-, and high-income countries. The ethnoecology and ethnobotany literature has long evaluated these different types of food environments in examining human interactions with the environment. We built upon this existing literature as well as our own field work in diverse socio-ecological contexts, from small-holder communities in the Tibetan Plateau to slums in Kenya and to our own neighborhoods, to identify the different types of food environments that communities interact with globally. This typology is featured in our recent conceptual paper published in the Foods Special Issue Advancing Food Environments for Sustainable Diets in a Changing World.

Source: Downs et al. 2020

We also built upon the existing literature to expand and refine the definition of the food environment. We define the food environment as: the consumer interface with the food system that encompasses the availability, affordability, convenience, promotion and quality, and sustainability of foods and beverages in wild, cultivated, and built spaces that are influenced by the socio-cultural and political environment and ecosystems within which they are embedded (Downs et al. 2020). In applying previous definitions, including our own (Herforth and Ahmed 2015, Turner et al. 2018), we came to realize some misunderstandings that needed clarity as well as the need for additional elements. We use the socio-ecological model to clarify where the food environment is situated within the broader food system – between individual factors and larger socio-ecological drivers. We also saw the need to link the concepts of food environments and sustainable diets. If we are to modify the food environment to support sustainable diets, our definition of the food environment needs to take into account the element of sustainability.

Descriptions of key food environment elements: the availability, affordability, convenience, promotion and quality, and sustainability of foods (Source: Downs et al. 2020)

Finally, we identify methods and tools to measure the various elements of the different types of food environments. This landscape overview of methods highlights clear gaps in our current ability to characterize food environments. There is a need to modify existing, and develop new, methods and tools for measuring both the objective and perceived elements of the different food environment types.

Application of this food environment typology allows for a more comprehensive understanding of the socio-ecological determinants of diets, enables comparative analysis between places and across time, and can be used to identify various entry points in food environments. Food environments are not static and may change over time. For example, in the COVID-19 pandemic, the types of food environments that people are interacting with may shift. Our preliminary research in some smallholder communities in low-income countries shows that access of foods in the built food environment may be reduced, while people have more time to forage foods from the wild food environment. Overall, examining the different types of food environments that communities interact with will provide scholars and practitioners with a better understanding of where and how to intervene to improve diets and reduce the burdens of the various forms of malnutrition.

Shauna Downs is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Urban-Global Public Health at Rutgers School of Public Health.

Selena Ahmed is an Associate Professor of Sustainable Food Systems in the Department of Health and Human Development at Montana State University and a Director of the Translational Biomarkers Core of the Center for American Indian and Rural Health Equity.

Anna Herforth is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Global Health and Population at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and a co-leader of the Ag2Nut Community of Practice.

The analysis and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the authors.


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