Lily Pratt, PHAA Policy Officer
On 2 June the Australian Parliament’s Standing Committee on Agriculture held their first (and so far, only) health-specific hearing regarding their inquiry into and report on strengthening and safeguarding food security.
PHAA was invited to attend after completing our submission in December 2022. We joined our public health allies Dietitians Australia and Cancer Council, to emphasise one thing: food security is a critical health concern, and we must aim to provide stable access, availability, and utilisation of nutritious food for all in Australia.
PHAA was expertly represented by Professor Danielle Gallegos, a Queensland University of Technology Professor of Nutrition and Dietetics, Director of the Centre for Childhood Nutrition Research, and PHAA Food and Nutrition Special Interest Group member. Professor Gallegos’ research focuses on the intersection between nutrition and social justice, in particular household food security.
Professor Gallegos began by reminding the committee who is affected by food (in)security: real people and their families. Prof Gallegos recounted the devastating realities for women in her research, including a family who don’t “eat as a family anymore because [mum] eats the kid’s leftovers”. She also referenced “a single mum of three children who introduced me to the ‘teabag trick’ – you know when you have an endless cup of tea made with one teabag that keeps the hunger away”.
This is happening across Australia, the world’s 12th largest economy in 2021.
Yet food insecurity isn’t related only to meal-skipping and malnutrition. It’s also linked to increased risk of elevated stress, anxiety, depression, poorer educational outcomes, domestic violence, unemployment, low income, and housing stress.
With many in Australia struggling through the current housing and cost of living crisis, food insecurity is of even greater concern. Decision makers must urgently act on this issue.
What were the committee interested in?
The Standing Committee’s Chair, Meryl Swanson MP, and Matt Burnell MP attended the hearing. Ms Swanson in particular appeared keen to learn more about a holistic food and nutrition policy plan, noting the relevance of the National Obesity Strategy and National Preventive Health Strategy.
Ms Swanson affirmed that “there’s no point in looking at food security without looking at the nutritional value of that food” and inquired about what should be included in a food and nutrition policy. The public health panel responded, and recommended:
- Providing food and nutrition for all.
- Addressing the overrepresentation of ultra processed foods in the food supply.
- Promoting sustainable eating patterns.
- Implementing updated dietary guidelines.
- Interacting between different departments.
- Combining strategies, like those for Obesity and Preventive Health.
- Needing the plan to be from paddock to plate, the entire food system.
- Including community co-design.
We were encouraged to hear the committee Chair respond positively to considering a food and nutrition policy that goes beyond the agriculture sector.
However, we also note that although the public health panel raised many points regarding commercial and environmental determinants of health, the questions mainly focused on dietary education.
Although important, after decades of education and personal responsibility being the primary lever used to address obesity (p.62), Australians continue to experience high levels of overweight and obesity. This individual-focused approach isn’t working.
For years, public health experts have instead called for responsibility to be shifted off individuals and onto the actions of the unhealthy food industry, and governments. Governments which allow these companies to sell and advertise products on government-owned property or approve the development of multitudes of fast-food restaurants in low-income areas, creating ‘food swamps’.
Asked why Australia’s obesity and overweight rates aren’t improving, Ainslie Sartori from Cancer Council replied that “our communities are filled with ultra processed foods, marketing to children, fast food clustering, outdoor junk food advertising, [and] pervasive marketing of fast food”.
How can people choose a healthier option when none is available, or when they are targeted with an ad on social media? For this, we applaud Independent MP for Mackellar Dr Sophie Scamps and her upcoming private member’s bill, calling for stricter regulation of junk food marketing. We urge the committee to discuss commercial and environmental determinants of health with Dr Scamps and other parliamentarians, such as those who debated related issues on 31 May 2023.
What are our asks?
During the hearing, we recommended:
- Creating and implementing a National Food and Nutrition policy that aligns with the Preventive Health and Obesity Strategies.
- Conducting one- to two- yearly Australian Bureau of Statistics monitoring of food security in Australian households using the US Department of Agriculture 18-point survey module.
- Raising the rate of social security payments including JobSeeker, childcare subsidy, and remote area living allowance so that they are equivalent to living wages.
- Working with local councils to enhance and codesign local food systems that provide opportunities for employment, and for affordable food.
- Starting a national discussion on school meals.
Image: Towfiqu barbhuiya/Unsplash