Archived: Enabling a healthy food chain for urban Aboriginal families

1 September 2016

A SEARCH family
A SEARCH family

A new Prevention Centre project is finding ways to address food insecurity in urban Aboriginal populations – a problem that has resulted in one in five people being unable to afford food at some point in the past 12 months, and links to substantially higher rates of overweight and obesity than among the general population.

Project lead Dr Sumithra Muthayya said families who worried about running out of food were more likely to rely on cheaper, energy-dense foods that filled the stomach. These diets were poor quality nutritionally and increased the risk of diet-sensitive chronic diseases, including diabetes and hypertension.

In the NSW urban Aboriginal population, overall rates of obesity and overweight appear to be quite high among children particularly from mid-childhood onwards, according to data from the Study of Environment on Aboriginal Resilience and Child Health (SEARCH).

Health effects

Food insecurity among children has adverse health effects, including increased rates of overweight and obesity, chronic illness, and developmental and mental health problems.

“It’s not just that these families may be socio-economically disadvantaged, it’s also a whole raft of other things such as the location of greengrocers, lack of transport, and cultural habits,” said Dr Muthayya, a nutritional epidemiologist and Study Director of SEARCH.

“To study access to healthy food in this population we could have just gone and looked at a couple of issues, but it’s so deep rooted within the food system you can’t simply make recommendations for the consumption for healthy food and change someone’s behaviour when they can’t afford the food they need to buy. We needed a systems approach.”

The project is embedded within SEARCH, a partnership between the Sax Institute, Aboriginal Health and Medical Research Council, researchers and four Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services in NSW.

Food security framework

Using the data obtained from the interviews and a group model building exercise, it will develop a strategic food security framework for the community and guidelines for local action to improve food security.

“We will be talking to the Aboriginal families and elders, health services and other stakeholders in local government about how we can make nutritious food available, accessible, affordable and acceptable. We’ll see if we can work with the local government to create a balance of healthy food through subsidised fresh vegetable and fruit distribution programs, controlling licences for unhealthy food outlets, and with schools to see whether we can have healthy canteens in the area,” Dr Muthayya said.

“This is such a complex problem that includes a lot of governmental systems, so it’s not so easy to go and change these things. But if you don’t influence things at that level you keep scratching at the surface and only achieve so much.”

– By Helen Signy, Senior Communications Officer

Read more about the project