Spotlight on the Food Health and Sustainability Student Club at HSPH

Through research, educational events and mixers, this student organization aims to influence food policy and enhance public understanding of sustainable dietary practices.
By Christina Marie Strachn

The Salata Institute is continuing its spotlight series highlighting climate and sustainability-focused Harvard student organizations, their goals, and the impactful projects they undertake. Following the showcase of Harvard Undergraduate Urban Sustainability Lab, we sat down with the Food Health and Sustainability Student Club at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Whitney Peng, a co-organizer of the club and a student at the school, shared insights into the club’s initiatives and accomplishments.

The Food Health and Sustainability Student Club is dedicated to examining the nuances of food systems, nutritional health, and the role of food in promoting climate sustainability. By integrating academic research with practical applications, and hosting educational events and mixers, the club aims to influence food policy and enhance public understanding of sustainable dietary practices.

Peng brings a unique perspective to the Food Health and Sustainability Student Club, blending her experiences in venture capital investment with a deep commitment to public health and nutrition. Before joining Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Peng worked in the financial sector, focusing on venture capital investments related to food technologies.

“I worked in finance, venture capital investment, and that is very different from many of my friends who were studying nutrition at Chan for Public Health, where they’re focusing on health sciences research,” said Peng. This background has given her an understanding of just how difficult it is to quantify the effects of some food health and sustainability initiatives in financial terms.

“Many companies are coming out and saying, ‘I’m producing a food product that’s good for your health,’ or ‘I’m working on a technology that’s improving health,’” said Peng. “But if you can’t quantify the health impact of many of these technologies or products, then it’s very hard for investors to put down the money.”

Peng’s focus has shifted towards understanding and improving the nutritional aspects of food technologies. Her aspirations – and those of the Food Health and Sustainability Club – are not just about enhancing individual health but also about ensuring sustainability and addressing the broader environmental impacts of food production.

“We also want to look into food technology and food policy and how they shape the health and sustainability aspects of our diet.”

Peng added, “We are based in change for public health, so we do a lot of epidemiology research seeking to understand how our diet is impacting our health — but another part of our mission is to translate the research we do into language that everyone can understand.”

The club is not just about research; it actively engages with the community. The Food Health and Sustainability Club has hosted mixers and cross-school events that allow members from different academic backgrounds to discuss how the food business interacts with health sciences. According to Peng, it’s surprising to see the differences in understanding between those working in food systems and those researching its nutritional and environmental impacts.

One of the more innovative aspects of the club’s approach is its commitment to sustainability. Peng discussed how changing climate conditions are altering food’s nutritional composition, emphasizing the need for adaptive food policies.

“The nutritional composition of the food that we’re eating today is dramatically different than it was before, because, for example, carbon dioxide is rising, and so there’s more food for the produce that we are growing, and they look like they’re becoming much bigger, but that also means that the nutritional composition of food is being diluted,” she said.

Peng enthusiastically shared that the club is also developing a central database to consolidate all relevant information on food, health, and sustainability upcoming events and classes at Harvard and across other universities, such as Tufts and MIT.

Visit the Food Health and Sustainability Student Club’s website to learn more about its projects and how they are improving public health and policy.