Maintaining a healthy and balanced diet is difficult for many of us at the best of times. During a global pandemic it becomes much harder. New research released by VicHealth shows that more than one in four (26%) Victorian families, and almost half (49%) of low income families, have been left to rely on cheap, unhealthy food due to home budget pressures during coronavirus lockdowns. With COVID-19 case numbers in Victoria disproportionately found in those living in greater social-economic disadvantage, primarily due to insecure and the types of work, this latest VicHealth research serves to further highlight that the most vulnerable and disadvantaged amongst us are also often the most negatively impacted, and exposes the injustice of our very own food system.
“Many families were already facing an uphill battle when coronavirus hit”
- Dr Sandro Demaio, CEO, VicHealth
Fear of food shortages and unnecessary panic buying grabbed headlines, but the increased reality of where the next meal will come from for many of us is the much more tragic story. This reality disproportionately affects our most vulnerable. As Dr Rachel Carey and her colleagues at the University of Melbourne pointed out, “Our food supply has problems with equity, not quantity”. Food insecurity amongst our most disadvantaged groups was found to be already as high as 82% pre-COVID-19. The pandemic has increased the demand for food relief at an alarming and unprecedented rate, with the Foodbank now seeing new demographics seeking help and social enterprises joining forces to try to meet demand.
It is not just higher food insecurity. Those who live in more disadvantaged neighbourhoods also need to contend with areas saturated with unhealthy food options. A Deakin University study found that the density of unhealthy to healthy food outlets in Melbourne had increased by 92% over the period 2008-2016, with places of higher socioeconomic disadvantage such as in Wyndham, Whittlesea, Melton, Hume, Casey and Cardinia most affected, effectively transforming these areas into what the researchers termed "food swamps”.
“A food swamp is an area where unhealthy food retail outlets dominate the landscape compared to healthy options, making it challenging for people to maintain healthy diets”
- Cindy Needham, Deakin’s Institute for Health Transformation
Stage 4 lockdowns have exacerbated this problem. Our 5km restrictions on personal movement across metropolitan Melbourne has seen people effectively “locked in” to their local food environments. If you live in areas with higher disadvantage, such as Cardinia, you could walk or drive past an average of eight to nine fast food outlets before you reach just one healthy food outlet. If you own a car, the fast food drive-through, where you do not even need to leave the safety of your own vehicle to meet your families hunger needs, becomes an even more attractive proposition. It is not surprising that VicHealth data shows children in the lowest socioeconomic areas are found to be more than twice as likely to be obese as those living in the highest socioeconomic areas.
“Governments must ensure that access to healthy, affordable food is a key part of the coronavirus recovery strategy”
- Dr Sandro Demaio, CEO, VicHealth
Food swamps and access to healthy food are systemic issues and must not be looked at in isolation. It must be part of much bigger, structural changes, guided by broader and inclusive food system strategies. These strategies need to put the health and wellbeing of its people and the planet at its centre. It must protect our productive soils and peri-urban green wedge; incentivise healthy food retail options; encourage urban food production; support the current and new generation of farmers; build community food literacy; and help communities connect with food and become active food citizens. It is all connected.
We are seeing some encouraging examples and leadership from local governments in Victoria. Cardinia Shire Council recognised that tackling issues of food insecurity and high obesity rates required a much broader food systems approach. It embarked on implementing a collective impact initiative called the Cardinia Food Circles Project , partnering with Sustain as the backbone organisation. It has now successfully developed its first community food systems strategy and is well on its way in delivering on many of its objectives. Other municipalities are following suit with Bendigo and Mornington Peninsula councils also committing to their own food system strategies.
COVID-19 recovery is an opportunity to fundamentally transform our food systems so they are more resilient, sustainable, and fair. Governments at all levels should take on this challenge. We are all in this together, and together, we should all have equal access to healthy food.
About the Author
Izo identifies with the commitment to the human right to adequate, healthy, and culturally appropriate food. He has a background in economic development and is passionate about the green economy and growing the agri-food sector through the integration of fair, ecologically sound, and sustainable practices. He has completed post-graduate studies in sustainability and has published on the topics of food systems literacy and participatory food policy development.