A McDonald's outlet at dusk

State government reforms needed to drain 'food swamps'

19 November 2021
How to create healthy, sustainable, equitable food systems
Despite much work on creating healthy food systems, local governments in New South Wales and Victoria struggle to prevent the sale and marketing of unhealthy food and drinks. A report led by Dr Belinda Reeve details the issues and offers suggestions for improvement.

An Australian-first study of local government policies has found that they generally fail to restrict the sale and marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages. On food safety, equity, sustainability, and waste prevention, however, they mostly excel.

Led by Dr Belinda Reeve at the University of Sydney Law School, the researchers reached this conclusion after they gathered and assessed 2,266 policy and strategic documents pertaining to food systems from the websites of all local governments in NSW and Victoria.  

Commenting on the findings, Dr Reeve, a health law expert said: “Ultimately, local governments already do a significant amount in this area – but there’s scope for a more strategic approach.”

The findings, visualised.

The findings, visualised. View full sized version.

The researchers analysed local government policies against a new framework– encompassing the domains of health and wellbeing, sustainability and environment, economic development, food waste, food quality and safety, social policy, and planning.

The areas of the framework addressed by the greatest number of local governments were:

  • provide education on/enforce food safety regulations (96.6 percent)
  • support sustainable local food production (92.3 percent)
  • reduce food losses and food waste (89.4 percent)
  • host/support education campaigns and events on food system issues (86.5 percent)
  • support access to safe drinking water (86.0 percent)

The areas of the framework addressed by the least number of local governments were:

  • provide pregnancy dietary advice (1.4 percent)
  • use economic measures to encourage affordability/consumption of healthier foods; discourage unhealthier foods (1.4 percent)
  • restrict unhealthy food in vending machines under local government control (1.9 percent)
  • restrict unhealthy food advertising; increase healthy food promotion (3.4 percent).

Victorian local governments were significantly more likely to be taking action on the framework recommendations than their NSW counterparts. Likewise, local governments in metropolitan areas were more proactive than those in regional and rural areas.

Draining ‘food swamps’ and other fixes

A vending machine

Only 1.9 percent of local governments restricted unhealthy food in vending machines under their control. Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash.

Dr Reeve and her co-authors from the University of Wollongong and William Angliss Institute of TAFE (Melbourne) provide recommendations for addressing the issues.

“Although our study focused on local governments, many of our recommendations are aimed at the state level,” said Dr Reeve. “This is because state governments shape the ability of local governments to effect change.”

One such initiative by state governments could be to help local governments address ‘food swamps’ in their local government areas. This term describes communities, usually lower-income ones, that are overwhelmed by low-quality food sources like fast-food restaurants and convenience stores.

“State governments could effect change by enacting legislation that permits local governments to take action against food swamps in growth-area suburbs,” said Dr Reeve.

Another NSW-specific recommendation is for the state to follow the examples of Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia to establish a public health legislative framework requiring every local government to develop a public health and wellbeing plan that is consistent with the state-level plan.

The researchers suggest the NSW Government should also legislate on climate change (as Victoria has done), and in doing so, make clear the link between climate change and health.

Lack of cohesion needs addressing

Finally, the researchers identified a lack of cohesion as an overarching issue, at all levels of government. Many local governments are already undertaking a significant amount of work across various sectors of the food system, but few have created a joined-up food system policy. There is also a lack of strategic, aligned action between local, state and federal governments in this area.

Dr Reeve said: “There is increasing momentum at the local government level on creating healthy, sustainable, and equitable food systems, and some local governments like City of Melbourne and City of Canada Bay are setting positive examples that others can follow. They've got dedicated food systems policies that address issues such as sustainability and diet-related health in a joined-up way.

“Their innovation is inspiring, and there are opportunities for more local governments to develop similar policies which benefit their local community and our environment more broadly.”

Learn more about the study by visiting the project website.

Declaration: This research project is funded by a grant from the Australian Research Council Discovery Scheme (Project number: DP190102494, 2019-2021).

Hero image: Thabang on Unsplash.

Loren Smith

Assistant Media Adviser (Humanities & Science)

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