Nova Campfire: Food Justice: Avoiding an Ultra-Processed Future

A painting of a red apple framed in the foreground and a city in the background

Thank you to everyone who joined us March 6 as we delved more deeply into one of the most pervasive challenges to well-being, justice, and sustainability in the Anthropocene—the replacement of “real food” by ultra-processed food (UPF) “products” that harm individuals, communities, and the wider environment. Heavily engineered, hyperpalatable products are highly addictive, nutrient poor, energy dense, and laden with additives known to promote anxiety, depression, and aggression. They also directly contribute to the pandemic of noncommunicable diseases, including the global mental health crisis. The social, economic, and environmental costs of UPFs are unsustainable. 

Our panelists discussed how to address these “food crimes,” including the deliberate efforts to target vulnerable populations and the tactics of UPF “food giants” and their front groups to apply undue influence on nutritional guidelines and policies. We underscored the imperative for equitable access to healthy, affordable, and sustainable “real” food—and the importance of worldviews, solutions, and social movements that place greater value on the well-being of people and planet than power and profit.

See the full event recording below or scroll down for individual presentations and continue conversations on the Nova Integration Hub.

Program and Panelists

There was a brief introduction from Susan Prescott, Director of the Nova Network, and Brian Berman, President and Founder of the Nova Institute for Health, after a general welcome and “mindful moment” from Rick Scott. Speakers presented for approximately 5-6 minutes, weaving their narrative threads to provide the fabric for discussion that all attendees can then contribute to.


portrait of nova institute founder brian berman

Professor Brian Berman, MD, is President and Founder of Nova Institute for Health and Professor Emeritus at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, where he was Director of the Center for Integrative Medicine. 

He is one of the most highly funded National Institutes of Health (NIH) researchers in the field of integrative and complementary medicine. A pioneer in the field and founder of the first U.S. academic medical center-based program for integrative medicine in 1991, he received two Bravewell Collaborative awards in leadership and service. He continues to conduct NIH-funded research at University of Maryland and promote a broad vision of health through leadership at Nova Institute for Health.

Solving Food Crime to Avoid an Ultra-Processed Future

headshot of professor susan prescott

Susan Prescott is Director of the Nova Network. She is a Professor of Planetary Health at University of Western Australia, Editor-in-Chief of Challenges, and a Scholar at the Nova Institute for Health in Baltimore.

She is a pediatrician, immunologist, artist, and award-winning author, internationally recognised for her cutting-edge research into the early environmental determinants of health and disease. Her work promotes awareness of the interconnections between personal and planetary health in ways that inspire creative, integrated, and wise approaches, grounded in reciprocity, for social and ecological justice and flourishing futures.

Food Crime: Deviance in the Food Industry is Harming People, Places, and Planet

Matthew Barnett Robinson is a full professor and criminologist at Appalachian State University in North Carolina with a PhD from Florida State University. His research interests include social justice, race and crime, criminological theory, the death penalty, and the “war on drugs.”

He has published more than twenty books, including Food Crime: An Introduction to Deviance in the Food Industry and The Drug Trade and the Criminal Justice System. His study of the use of capital punishment in North Carolina found that it was an ineffective deterrent and more costly than life imprisonment. He also challenged existing notions informing national drug policy, exposing inconsistencies in data analysis and reporting by the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Ultra-Processed Food Addiction and Socioeconomic Injustice: Targeting Vulnerable Populations with Addictive “Food” Products Compounds Health Inequalities

Erica LaFata is an Assistant Research Professor at the Drexel University Center for Weight, Eating, and Lifestyle Science. She earned her doctoral degree in clinical psychology from the University of Michigan and completed her postdoctoral research fellowship with the Center for Weight and Eating Disorders at the University of Pennsylvania. 

Erica’s program of research examines whether ultra-processed foods may be reinforcing in a manner that directly drives overeating and explores how core mechanisms of addictive disorders, like withdrawal, may contribute to eating-related problems for vulnerable individuals.

Generational Shifts in Gut Microbiota with More Processed Environments: Links to the Pandemic of Chronic Inflammatory Diseases

Erika Isolauri is Professor of Paediatrics at the University of Turku, Chief Physician of Department of Pediatrics at Turku University Hospital, and Head of the Department of Clinical Medicine, Faculty of Medicine, University of Turku, Finland. 

She is internationally recognized for her work on early life nutrition and the microbiome, including the effects of probiotics in allergy and immunometabolic disorders. She has received numerous academic honors including the John Harris Prize from the European Society for Paediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition, the Niilo Hallman prize from the Foundation for Paediatric Research, Finland, the Matti Äyräpää Award from The Finnish Medical Society Duodecim, and many others.

Food, Microbes, and Aggressive Behavior: Can Antisocial Behavior be Influenced by the Microbiome?

Samuli Rautava is the Head of Neonatology at Helsinki University Hospital and Associate Professor of Neonatology at the University of Helsinki in Helsinki, Finland. 

His research is based on the general hypothesis that early contact with microbes and particularly the indigenous intestinal microbiota has a significant long-term impact on health and the risk of chronic immunoinflammatory disease. His translational research project consists of birth cohort register studies, utilization of machine learning on big data, nested case-control studies as well as experimental models and randomized clinical trials to establish causality.

Food and Punishment: Lessons from Impact Justice's Food in Prison Project

Leslie Soble is a Senior Program Manager at Impact Justice where she manages Impact Justice’s Food in Prison Project and is the lead author of the organization’s national report, Eating Behind Bars: Ending the Hidden Punishment of Food in Prison. 

An ethnographer and folklorist specializing in food and foodways, she has spent more than five years immersed in research and program development addressing the carceral eating experience and its impacts on individuals, communities, and the environment. Leslie is also the founder and artistic director of “Story Soup,” a project that creates contexts for dialogue across cultural and generational borders through food and narrative.

Exposing the Tactics of Food Giants: Progress toward Corporate Accountability in the Food System

Ashka Naik is Director of Research and Policy at Corporate Accountability (CA) focusing on questions of sovereignty and power in challenging the abuses of transnational corporations. 

She leads the research team on strategic campaign development, corporate research, and equity-centered analysis of corporate power across issues that guide the vision and overall success. Ashka also leads CA’s food program, focusing on structural determinants and sociopolitical dimensions of food systems, nutrition, and public health, while exposing industry’s interference and influence in the policies and the politics of food security, sovereignty, and justice across the world, especially the Global South. Ashka is currently pursuing her doctorate at the University of Massachusetts Boston.


March 6, 2024


11:00 am – 12:30 pm ET

Healing is facilitated through safety, persistence, and trust.

  • Persistence: “People did not simply progress through this sequence and experience healing. The healing journey was a recursive, back and forth process. They found helpers, used the skills/resources that those helpers provided, found other helpers that provided more resources and used those skills and resources. As this process continued, people experienced a gradual amelioration of their suffering. Although many despaired at times, all demonstrated the quality of persistence—they refused to give up.”
  • Safety & Trust: “To connect to helpers, it was essential for people to feel safe in those relationships and able to trust that the person would be a helper and not a barrier to healing. Persons whose wounds included a violation of trust were especially careful about testing the safety of new relationships.”

Resources support us as we heal. They include reframing, responsibility, and positivity. “Making connections enabled participants to acquire and refine resources and skills that were essential in their healing journey. People also brought their own personal strengths to the journey.”

  • Reframing: “A particularly important skill was the ability to reframe—that is to look at suffering through a different lens.” This does NOT mean minimizing trauma or pain, but rather it often means the opposite: understanding what happened was wrong, unfair, or uncontrollable and that we are not to blame for it.
  • Responsibility: While we don’t have control over what happened to us, we are the only ones who can help ourselves heal. “A third essential resource that people acquired or refined was the ability to take an appropriate amount of responsibility for their healing journeys. They participated actively in the process of healing. Once again, some participants already had developed this skill, and some acquired or refined it from their helpers.”
  • Positivity: “Another resource that people acquired or refined during their healing journey was choose to be positive—that is to have some optimism about their situation.” People have varying predispositions to positivity. In the study, positivity was important in helping people heal. This doesn’t mean a toxic positivity, but rather simply finding some good in life and feeling hopeful about our situations.

“Connection to others was an essential part of all the healing journeys.” Humans are social creatures, and even the most introverted of us need close relationships. Friends and family add meaning and value to life and help support us, in good times and bad. 

When we experience relational trauma, relationships can feel scary, but reestablishing safety and trust in relationships is where the healing happens. (To be clear, we do not mean reestablishing safety and trust with abusers, but rather finding other healing relationships.) 

“When safety and trust had been established, people were able to connect with helpers. The nature of the behaviours of helpers that fostered healing ranged from small acts of kindness to unconditional love.”

  • “Moving from being wounded, through suffering to healing, is possible. It is facilitated by developing safe, trusting relationships and by positive reframing that moves through the weight of responsibility to the ability to respond.”
  • “Relationships with health professionals were among these but were not necessarily any more important to the healing journey than other kinds of helpers, which included family members, friends, spirituality and their God, pets, support groups, administrators, case workers and supervisors.”

Healing probably means different things to different people, but one definition that emerged from the study is: “The re-establishment of a sense of integrity and wholeness.” 

Healing was an emergent property that resulted from each individuals’ complex healing journey, a result of bridged connections between resources and relationships. “…they gradually found relief from suffering and began to exhibit emergent characteristics: a sense of hope, self-acceptance, and a desire to help others—the immediate precursors to healing.”

 In varying degrees, “they were able to transcend their suffering and in some sense to flourish.” 

  • Helping Others: We find meaning in helping others. “Understanding that suffering gives the strength and experience to help others in similar situations.”
  • Hope: We begin to have hope that we will not always feel this bad. A Crohn’s patient said, “I think gradually I realized that I was going to feel better. I did have days when I actually didn’t vomit, when I did feel better. And I think gradually I came to believe that maybe I could have a normal life again.”
  • Self-Acceptance: We see our inherent value and understand that we are not to blame for our suffering. A participant living with HIV said, “I’m really proud of myself. I think that now I still want to live. I don’t want to die, and I really love myself a lot. I have a lot of comfort in myself.”

Suffering is the ongoing pain from wounding. 

There is some debate about whether people always experience suffering on the path to healing.

Wounding happens when we experience physical or emotional harm. It can stem from chronic illness or by physical or psychological trauma for which we do not have the tools to cope, or a combination of those factors. 

“The degree and quality of suffering experienced by each individual is framed by contextual factors that include personal characteristics, timing of their initial or ongoing wounding in the developmental life cycle and prior and current relationships.”

Characteristics: How predisposed someone may be to wounding/how many tools and resources someone may have to deal with trauma/illness.

Lifestages: Developmental timing plays an important role in the impact of trauma — young children often do not have the same resources as older adults.

Relationships: Relationships can provide solace and support for those suffering, while lack of healthy relationships can prolong suffering.