PhD candidate Meron Lewis used to work as a patent attorney before switching to a dietetics degree as a mature aged student.
In her fourth year in 2015, she started work with Professor Amanda Lee on a systematic review of food price and affordability monitoring tools, protocols and methods, and realised how research could help people make healthy food choices in their everyday lives.
“Dietetics can be very focused on nutrients and blood tests, but I have always been more interested in why is that person choosing to put that in their trolley, when I’m standing at the checkout.
“I have quite a strong social justice streak. I wanted to do something that could help people on low incomes to lead healthier lives through making healthier food choices,” she says.
When she finished her degree, Meron started to work for Professor Lee as a Research Assistant on projects including the development of the Healthy Diets Australian Standardised Affordability and Pricing (ASAP) methods protocol and research into improving Aboriginal food insecurity on the APY Lands.
Having modified the Healthy Diets ASAP protocol for remote Aboriginal communities, a logical next step was to apply it to low socioeconomic groups in Australia. Meron’s research project was chosen as one of two PhD scholarships awarded by the Prevention Centre.
As a single parent of two children, Meron has lived experience of low socioeconomic life. Her background as a dietitian highlighted the challenges of eating healthily when money was tight.
“Spending on food is more flexible than on other costs like housing, utilities and transport – so in times of need, food is often the first thing to go,” she says.
“Households that are spending more than 30% of their income on food could be experiencing food stress, but we have had no way of knowing previously how that is affecting the food choices of low socioeconomic groups.”
She hopes her findings will inform policy actions aimed at these groups, including adding taxes to certain foods, exempting some foods from the GST, and offering financial subsidies along specific food supply chains or vouchers for individuals at high-risk of poor nutrition.
“No matter how much money people have, they are still buying discretionary foods. We are so surrounded by it, it’s constantly changing, a moving target,” she says.
“I hope my research will help identify what policy actions can be taken to improve food security, nutrition and diet-related health in low socioeconomic groups.”