Food Systems and Public Health

Food is at the center of many critical public health issues, from hunger to obesity, chronic disease to climate change. Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health created our Program in Food Systems and Public Health to catalyze research and practice on food-related issues. Launched and led by Mark Bittman—celebrated author, New York Times writer, and Union of Concerned Scientists Food & Environment Fellow—the program explores the interconnectedness of food to issues such as income inequality, the global economy, climate change, and health policy.

Unhealthy diet contributes to approximately 678,000 deaths in the U.S. each year, and globally, the numbers of overweight and obese adults is rising in nearly every region and every country. Thirteen percent of the world’s population are now obese. Unhealthy diet and obesity is linked with heart disease, some forms of cancer and type 2 diabetes, among other conditions. About half of all American adults now have one or more preventable chronic diseases such as these.

Alongside the Program in Food Systems and Public Health, the Food Fellows Program allows students to benefit from a hands-on learning opportunity with organizations working at the intersection of food and public health. Students can deepen their engagement by participating in the Food Policy and Obesity Prevention (FPOP) student group, which provides comprehensive extracurricular opportunities for the Columbia University Medical Center community around food access, policy, and advocacy. The program’s courses are complemented by a public lecture series on Food, Public Health and Social Justice.

Sample Courses

Students taking courses with the Program on Food Systems and Public Health examine the historical, environmental, cultural, economic, and behavioral impacts of food on health and health systems. Highlights of current courses:

Food, Public Health, and Social Justice - This popular course taught by Mark Bittman casts a close eye on the policies that promote healthy populations. Guest speakers—including food experts, labor advocates, scientists, members of the government, and journalists—explore the impact of health disparities, nutrition, worker rights, and climate change on access to food.

Basic and Applied Nutritional Sciences - This course engages students in the critical appraisal of the continuum between basic research, applied research, and programs and policy decisions related to nutrition. Under associate professor Mary Gamble’s guidance, students become proficient in translational aspects of nutritional science, using a case-studies approach to examine major nutritional issues being heatedly debated on both local and global scales.

Confronting Obesity: Society, Structures, and Policy - Through this broad overview of the socio-cultural factors associated with the obesity epidemic taught by Gretchen Van Wye, students identify promising strategies for intervention and assess multi-pronged solutions to this multi-factorial problem.

Food Nutrition in Complex Emergencies - Utilizing real-life scenarios and examples, students learn how to contribute to nutrition programs or nutrition assessment in emergencies, among populations that are often already undernourished. Instructors Casie Tesafi and Jeanette Bailey, who work daily with nutrition emergencies in global populations, teach this course together.

Nutritional Epidemiology

Food Law and Policy - This course taught by Assistant Professor of Health Policy and Management, Sara Abiola, will provide students with an in-depth examination of the federal laws, judicial opinions, and policies that form the foundation of food access, availability, safety, and quality in the United States and in many countries around the world.

Microbiome and Health - A new course taught by Rupak Shivakoti will provide an introduction to the microbiome and its role in human health. The concepts and methods learned in the course will be applied to various topics of microbiome and health such as gastrointestinal diseases, infectious diseases, cancer, cardio-metabolic diseases and environmental health.

Food Security, Plant Biology, Climate Change and Public Health - This course taught by former USDA research Lewis Ziska will focus on how the CO2 and climate change alter plant biology and the subsequent consequences for human health.