Recent alumna Sierra Tseng virtually caught up with alumna Dr. Stacey Blondin, AB ’07 to discuss her career path, ideal food systems, and the intersection between health, food, and sustainability. Dr. Blondin is a former Dunster House Undergraduate Resource Efficiency Program (REP) representative who is passionate about human health, social inequality, and sustainable food systems. She has collaborated with the Harvard Office for Sustainability and Food Literacy Project. In addition, she led the VerEATas study with Harvard University Dining Services (HUDS) to promote dietary sustainability on campus. She holds a MSPH degree in International Health and Nutrition from the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health in Nutrition and a PhD in Food Policy and Applied Nutrition from the Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. Dr. Blondin completed her post-doctoral fellowship in the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. She currently works as a Behavioral Research Associate at the World Resources Institute.
Sierra Tseng: What inspired you to pursue a career in nutrition and sustainability? Was there a particular course, event, or professor that especially influenced you during your time at Harvard?
Stacey Blondin: I was born on Earth Day and grew up spending most of my free time in the outdoors of Northern Michigan, so I’ve always felt a close connection with the earth and concomitant desire and responsibility to preserve and protect it. However, I didn’t fully make the connection between diet, human health, food security, and the environment until college. As a senior in 2007, I enrolled in an Eliot House seminar on nutrition and health and then volunteered in the AmeriCorps with Share Our Strength’s Cooking Matters program that provides low-income communities with nutrition and culinary education. These experiences underscored the connection between short and long-term food security and the food system upon which they depend.
ST: Your work lies at the intersection of sustainability, climate change, human health, hunger, and social inequality. Based on your experiences and research findings, what does the ideal food system look like? What are the biggest challenges to implementing this kind of food system? Most importantly, why do we need this kind of food system in comparison to the current structures in place?
SB: The ideal food system is one that is sustainable in the broadest sense. Too often, people conceptualize sustainability as a concept that relates exclusively or primarily to the environment and climate changes (i.e., a preservation of physical, natural resources for future generations). I would like to see an increasingly more comprehensive focus on the health and social justice dimensions inherent in the notion of sustainability. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), “sustainable diets are protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems; culturally acceptable; accessible; economically fair; affordable; and nutritionally adequate, safe, and healthy while optimizing natural and human resources.” Since all of these components are interrelated, prioritizing or looking at any one of them in isolation may compromise one or more of the others.
ST: You led the VerEATas project, which focuses on the environmental, moral, and ethical implications of food choices at Harvard College. Could you tell us more: what the main goals of the project are, what catalyzed the project, and what have been the biggest takeaways you’ve gleaned from your findings? What kinds of shifts have you observed in the food choices presented in Harvard’s dining halls from your time as an undergraduate to your time as a resident tutor? Is there an increasing awareness of the importance of sustainable diets on campus?
SB: From the time I was a first-year student in 2003 through my departure as a tutor in 2019, the goal of the VerEatTas project was to see if and how sustainability labeling might affect students’ food choices. We used a stoplight labeling system to indicate which Harvard University Dining Services (HUDS) menu items had high, medium, and low environmental impacts based on their carbon, nitrogen, and water footprints. By and large, students were receptive to the labels, and results suggest that they also had a modest impact on food choices. We are looking forward to publishing our findings soon!
ST: What are the biggest flaws in current nutritional guidelines and dietary patterns from a sustainability and social impact viewpoint, and how might we go about addressing them? How can the global community incorporate food security interventions that are nutritionally effective, equitable, and sustainable?
SB: The existing Dietary Guidelines for Americans are primarily concerned with dietary intake and health outcomes. In 2015, the scientific committee considered sustainability for the first time, but politics prevented the recommendations from being incorporated into the consumer-facing guidelines. Several other countries have taken the lead on this front, and it’s definitely a necessary next step for the US. In the meantime, the EAT Lancet Report (released last year) provides excellent guidance on healthy, environmentally-friendly dietary patterns. While not yet affordable and achievable for all, it’s a good start for those of us who can.
ST: What’s been the most surprising thing you’ve learned about the intersection of health, environmental well-being, sustainability, and the food we eat?
SB: One thing I am perpetually reminded of and amazed by the limited or lack of awareness of the connection between diet and climate change. Most people immediately think of energy and transportation when it comes to reducing our collective environmental impact and often at the policy level. While these sectors are obviously of great importance, with agriculture responsible for nearly 30% of total emissions, we each have the opportunity to minimize our ‘foodprint’ by choosing plant-based options and reducing food waste multiple times a day!
ST: What are you most excited about for your future work?
SB: Having recently transitioned to role as a Behavioral Research Associate at the World Resources Institute, I’m excited to combine my educational and experiential background in psychology/behavioral economics, health and nutrition, environmental sustainability and climate change, and social responsibility toward shifting consumers toward more sustainable dietary patterns and behaviors. By combining insights from multiple disciplines and perspectives and working together, hopefully we can devise strategies for comprehensive and lasting change.