From volunteering in the Peace Corps to navigating sustainable food systems, food policy

Andy Jones

Q&A with Andy Jones

Nutritional Sciences

By Bob Cunningham

Andy Jones, associate professor and associate chair of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, discovered his passion for public health while volunteering in the US Peace Corps in Kazakhstan.

Jones’ role involved teaching English as a second language, community grant writing and environmental science education. His two and a half years in central Asia ignited a passion for public service, community work and the realization of the fundamental role of health and well-being in broader development efforts.

“I studied filmmaking as an undergraduate at Penn State University and sort of went into the Peace Corps as a lost 20-something not really quite sure what my career aspirations were,” Jones said. 

It was only after returning from the Peace Corps, while striving to integrate his overseas work into a career path, that he gravitated toward nutrition to contribute to international development. Jones recognized nutrition as a cornerstone for individual and community health, which in turn was essential for economic advancement, and decided to explore the field further.

“I earned an arts degree during my undergraduate education,” said Jones, who earned a PhD at Cornell University. “So, nutrition offered me both a foundation in the biological sciences and a path to pursue my burgeoning interests in international development and public health.”

Jones is interested in understanding how food systems influence climate change and how food policy works in the United States. He has worked as a consultant for several institutions, including the World Bank, International Food Policy Research Institute, Chicago Council on Global Affairs and UNICEF.

How does nutrition factor into healthcare?

I wasn’t initially drawn to healthcare, but my involvement in the field has made it clear that unhealthy diets are a predominant cause of ill health globally, eclipsing other factors. This revelation alone emphasizes the critical nature of nutrition in our well-being—a compelling motive for my sustained interest. Nutrition is a key component alongside other essential health behaviors such as exercise, sleep and mental health care. It’s not the sole concern, but it's integral to a holistic healthy lifestyle.

Another compelling aspect is nutrition’s enduring mystery. Even within the field, there’s an admission that nutritional science hasn’t completely deciphered the optimal human diet. While we uphold basic principles about consuming sufficient fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and limiting sugar and salt, the diversity in individual responsesto diets, and disparities in health outcomes around the world, present a captivating puzzle. These variances are what drive the continuous study and evolution of nutritional science.


How do food systems influence climate change?

When we think about climate change, we typically think about emissions from fossil fuel use or the energy grid. A lot of the emissions that come from food systems are a result of agriculture and the massive impact from transforming entire landscapes to grow crops. The entire agricultural supply chain, including food transportation, distribution and refrigeration, contributes significantly to emissions and impacts climate change. A substantial portion of this—50% to 80%—originates from agricultural production itself. The emissions largely come from larger farming operations and especially those involving animal grazing.

How does food policy work in the United States?

In the United States, the US Farm Bill is the principal legislative document governing food policies and usually renews every five years. The latest renewal was due at the end of September 2023, and while it has lapsed, the implications are still manageable. The bill represents a complex, multifaceted compromise, aligning the interests of urban food policy advocates, who push for programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and rural constituencies focused on supporting farmer incomes through subsidies, such as crop insurance, to safeguard against failures.

The Farm Bill is a juggernaut of legislation, encompassing 12 titles, with SNAP receiving a dominant portion of its funding. Although it is viewed as essential, it also reflects the intricacies and difficulties of the policy-making process, requiring a balance of diverse, often conflicting interests. Critics and researchers advocate for a more coherent food policy that sets clear objectives for a sustainable and healthy food system, something the current legislation falls short of achieving. The process of advocacy and research continues with the goal of redesigning the food system to align more closely with these collective ideals and to realize a future food system that meets broader consensus and expectations.

How does agricultural diversity influence healthy diets?

My research over the last 10 to 15 years has primarily focused on lower-income countries, working with smallholder farmers. The goal is to understand the correlation between the diversity of crops grown on these farms and the dietary diversity and healthfulness for the farmers themselves. Studies in places like Malawi, West Africa, and the Andes in South America consistently hint at a positive yet modest relationship between farm diversity and diet diversity.

However, over time, I’ve recognized that while farm diversity has its role in enhancing diet diversity, the role of markets is critical. People, even those growing their own food, depend on markets to buy additional food items. The availability, variety, and affordability of foods in these markets often play a bigger part in determining the healthfulness of diets.

Efforts must be balanced between promoting diverse agricultural systems and improving access to healthy foods at lower costs. Increasing the supply of nutrient-rich foods like fruits and vegetables, which are often more expensive than processed foods, could help to lower prices and improve access. Initiatives such as SNAP or food-assistance programs can also enhance the ability of low-income individuals to afford healthier options.

Furthermore, it's essential to consider the ultimate use of these agricultural products. The majority of corn, for example, isn’t eaten by humans but is used for feeding animals or as ethanol in cars. The processing and marketing of food, once it has left the farm, have a significant impact on health and diet, sometimes more than what’s grown. Thus, a comprehensive view that considers not just the diversity of the agricultural system but also post-harvest processes and consumer access to healthy foods is critical for creating a food system that supports better health outcomes.

What do you like most about working in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at Michigan Public Health?

It’s fun being a part of the Nutritional Sciences Department. We’re a moderately sized department and everybody’s doing something different. I have colleagues who are working on eating disorders, food insecurity, metabolic pathways in the body, mineral metabolism—there are so many different entry points into nutritional sciences. And even though people in my department are doing very different work, we’re all under the same umbrella of nutrition. I think that’s a big reason why nutrition is an exciting discipline.

It’s a great community to be a part of if you’re a student or a researcher because you get exposed to a lot of different kinds of science, and I don’t think you always find that in academic departments. That diversity, and the kinds of questions that are being asked because of that methodology, creates a rich environment—both for our students and for our faculty and staff.