Food security – Flavour of the month

8 June 2021

Less than 1% of Australians consume diets consistent with dietary guidelines. This was an alarming takeaway from last week’s #PreventionWorksLIVE masterclass with Professor Amanda Lee on “Improving food security and affordability in Australia, including remote areas”.

Professor Lee stressed that at a global commodity level, food security tends to focus on food quantity but from a public health perspective, the issue of food qualityneeds to be front and centre. She believes urgent action is required in Australia to improve dietary quality and to address ‘over-nutrition’ through high intake of unhealthy foods.

Improving food security and affordability in Australia

In Australia, food security is assessed in National Nutrition Surveys with the last in 2011-13 looking at whether there was a time in the previous 12 months when the respondents’ households ran out of food and couldn’t afford to buy more and whether anyone in the household went without food. Nationally, 4% of people reported running out of food or not being able to afford it, with less than 2% reporting someone in their household went without food.

However, there is general consensus that these national figures are grossly underestimating the true picture. In 2019, the Foodbank hunger report found 4 million Australians suffered food insecurity. The situation is likely to be much more dire now due to COVID-19 with demand for food relief increasing by 47% in the past year. The Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) estimates that one in six children are now food insecure.

While the global pandemic has added to job losses, poverty and high food prices, key factors affecting food security, the COVID supplements and increased Job Seeker payments had a positive impact on the diets of welfare dependent Australian families early last year. For the first time in May 2020, these families could actually afford a healthy diet, supported by an ACOSS survey finding more than 80% of those on welfare reported eating healthier and more regularly than before the pandemic.  “However,” Professor Lee stressed, “the additional payments have been decreased – back to just an extra $25 per week, so healthy diets are now once again unaffordable for vulnerable Australians”.

“When popular brands of foods and drinks are purchased, current diets can be more expensive than healthy diets, due to the inclusion of alcohol, and differential application of GST in Australia. However, healthy diets are just not affordable for low socioeconomic groups,” she said. “Further, healthy diets become more expensive than current diets when the cheapest options are purchased, because the cheapest ‘generic’ products are predominantly the less healthy choices. No wonder low-income households have poorer health outcomes. This is a sorry example of food insecurity in action.”

Professor Amanda Lee

Professor Lee focused on the need to reduce unhealthy discretionary foods and drinks which provide more than 35% of our current energy intake, and cost families around 58% of their food budget. “Our diet is not equitable,” she said. “Many groups, including low socioeconomic households and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, suffer a disproportionate burden of diet-related disease equivalent to some of the poorest countries in the world.”

Professor Lee highlighted the success of the Prevention Centre project lead by Aboriginal community organisations on the remote APY Lands which improved their food security and diet by increasing demand for healthy foods, and focusing on the availability, affordability, product placement and promotion of these in the community stores through a revised nutrition policy.  “The amazing results included the first decrease in over 40 years of energy intake from unhealthy food/drinks- from 45% to 39%,” she reported. “We saw a reduction in sales of sugary drinks from 60% to 40% of all drinks, and a 45% increase in sales of fruit and vegetables. These results were consistent with a similar project by the Minjilang community in Arnhem Land in the 1980s, where biomedical indicators of nutritional status were also assessed every three months, and showed dramatic improvements including reversal of diabetes, reduction in heart disease risk, and normalization of body mass index (BMI).”

The strengths, resourcefulness and resiliency of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups can offer insights to help other communities to improve food security. Professor Lee believes urgent policy action is now needed. “We’ve got to work collaboratively across multiple sectors to develop a new national food and nutrition policy to guide action,” she said.

If you missed this session of Prevention Works Live you can view the recording here.

UN Food Summit

In the lead up to the Prevention Works Live event, Professor Lee was part of the official National Dialogue in preparation for the United Nations Food Systems Summit to be convened later this year. She joined a webinar panel on May 27 “Eating for our health and the environment – balancing nutrition and sustainability”facilitated by the Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment, to provide a platform for diverse stakeholders from across food systems to discuss food system challenges and explore new opportunities for collaboration and action.

Professor Lee was joined by Dr Bradley Ridoutt, Principal Research Scientist at CSIRO, Mark Barthel, Fight Food Waste at CRC, and Ronni Kahn AO, CEO and Founder of Ozharvest, exploring a number of issues including current and emerging food choices and the intersection between diet, nutrition and environmental sustainability in Australia; various initiatives, innovations and research along the supply chain which seeks to balance environmental/nutrition considerations as week as innovative approaches to addressing food loss and waste.

Several panellists throughout the Food Summit series spoke about the impact of environment on food supply and diet, however, Professor Lee was asked to present on the inverse by looking at the impact of diet on the environment. She discussed the need to transform food systems to decrease food waste, energy intake, intake of unhealthy ‘discretionary’ food and drinks, and increase the proportion of healthy plant-based foods in our diets. She noted these are all challenging tasks given the “food and nutrition policy vacuum in Australia,” despite the fact that at least15% of deaths and 8% of disability adjusted life years are attributed to dietary risks in this country.

Finding a better balance of nutrition and sustainability will require stronger political and public will according to Professor Lee although she noted “the good news is that transforming our food systems to better deliver diets consistent with health, sustainability and equity is possible as shown by several remote Aboriginal communities that have successfully improved their food security”’. The webinar was recorded and can be viewed here (webinar 3).

Professor Lee also presented on the need to transform our food system to better deliver health and wellbeing, equity and environmental sustainability at the final official country dialogue for the United Nations Food Systems Summit, hosted by the CSIRO on 8 June.

Food Dashboard

Click here to register

Professor Lee will play a role in the launch of Australia’s Food Environment Dashboard next week, hosted by Deakin University and the Obesity Policy Coalition. This tool developed by the leadership of Assoc/Prof Gary Sacks and INFORMAS brings together the best available and most up-to-date data on all aspects of Australia’s food environments including key indicators of the healthiness of our food supply, labelling, pricing, marketing, and government and company policies. This will be an important online resource for policy makers and those working to improve the healthiness of food environments. Make sure you register for this event on June 16 here.