New research from the University of Auckland reveals startling disparities in the ways communities are targeted by junk food retailers. Don Rowe speaks to the study’s author, Professor Boyd Swinburn.
A combination of political apathy and toothless local government is exacerbating New Zealand’s obesity crisis, a new study has found. We’re living in fundamentally unhealthy environments, researchers from the University of Auckland concluded, and, as usual, it’s the most vulnerable in our communities who are exposed the most.
The world-first study, which ran over three years from 2014-2017, highlighted a lack of effective nutrition policies in schools, as well as swathes of junk food advertisements targeted at children – as many as eight an hour during primetime.
Disadvantaged communities have three times as many takeaway joints, many more ads for junk food around schools, and even their supermarkets devote more space to unhealthy foodstuffs. And without regulation, there’s nothing anyone can do about it.
Don Rowe spoke to the study’s author, Professor Boyd Swinburn, about the food that’s killing our poor, and what we can do to stop it.
Winston Peters said this morning that ‘people are capable of looking after their own lives’ in regards to a sugar tax. What do you make of those comments in light of your study?
People do want to look after their own lives and they do want to make responsible choices, but the trouble on the food side is that it’s just a very hard thing to do, especially if you’re struggling elsewhere. I think the view that it’s all up to the individual is the current strategy, and it’s not working.
People who have worked in other areas – tobacco control, injury prevention, workplace safety – they know for sure that the best way to get people to behave in a healthy way is to make the environment conducive and to make it easier. That’s what we’re after in the food environment.
A lot of our eating habits start in childhood, and we have atrocious childhood obesity stats. Your study found that 40% of schools have a nutrition policy, but what does that look like in practice?
What surprised us in the study was the amount of junk food still in schools, despite the fact that obesity has been in the headlines for two decades. I think that this just reflects the general environment. People have not been taking care of schools enough to pull the junk food out. Even the policies that schools did have, when we looked at them they were very vague, they weren’t very comprehensive. Still about 90% of schools use unhealthy food for fundraising and so on, so I think there is a big opportunity to improve the health of kids through their schools.
What would a good nutrition policy in a school look like?
I think the shining example that came out of our whole study was the work that had been done through DHBs in improving food in hospitals – not for patients, but the food that’s available to the public. They started by getting rid of sugary drinks, then they developed a strong and comprehensive national policy which is a very good exemplar for schools to follow. And they also had a bit of a push from the centre, in this case the director-general, emphasising how important it was for hospitals to lead the way and show what a healthy diet looks like.
The same kind of approach needs to happen with schools – there are many schools out there that want healthier food because they know it’s best for their kids, but it’s a struggle and a central push would make difference.
If just one thing came out of this study and it was healthier food in schools, I’d be very happy.
At what stage do you say that it’s up to parents? How much can a school do when they’re not directly controlling what kids are eating?
It’s not either/or. Parents have a particular responsibility to do what they can within their capacity and finances to provide a healthy environment for the child. But life gets in the way often. Having easily available, very cheap junk food that is marketed at children means that when life does get in the way, those foods become a staple. It’s an interaction between individual responsibility and what the environment provides.
You just need to look back on all the other things that we’ve been doing in the last several years that have shown people will take responsibility if they’re given the opportunity. Think about things like drink driving, like wearing fluoro, like seatbelts, like smoking – we have improved our personal responsibility and the reason we’ve improved it is that the environment has been supportive of that. At the moment the food environment runs very counter to personal responsibility.
A good example of that would be the proximity that most poor communities have to fast food outlets, which is something you also see with alcohol stores, but how can government regulate that without discriminating?
One of the things we found in the study is that there’s almost three times the density of fast food outlets and convenience stores in the poorer neighbourhoods compared to wealthy neighbourhoods – they’re what we call food swamps. At the moment there are no real restrictions on setting up another junk food store in Ōtara despite fully half of the outlets already selling junk food. It’s the same story with liquor.
Now, local governments can do something about that but only if they’re given the opportunity under zoning regulations. At the moment they don’t have that capacity and if a fast food outlet wants to open outside a primary school, it doesn’t matter if the community doesn’t want it or the council doesn’t want it, they can’t prevent it for any health-related reasons.
Parliament is currently considering legislation to bring wellbeing objectives back into the local government mandate that the previous government took out, and that is an opportunity to give more strength to local government.
Your study found that supermarkets create more shelf space for junk food in poorer communities – what sort of disparity are we talking about, and where does that take place?
We had a set of indicators for healthy foods and junk foods, and we measured shelf length in a few hundred supermarkets. We found that those in lower-income areas devoted more shelf space to those junk foods than supermarkets in affluent areas.
If you talk to the supermarkets they say ‘well, that’s what people want’, but supply and demand is a two-way street, and there are definitely things that supermarkets can do within the environment that they control to make healthy foods more enticing, more attractive − they can put specials on them, they can have them at the ends of aisles, promoting them. Supermarkets have some agency− they do have to respond to what consumers want, but they have agency to alter the balance of what is in their stores.
The psychology of supermarkets is Marketing 101 stuff − don’t they have a greater responsibility to act ethically? Food is a universal necessity.
It is, and supermarkets are absolute experts in knowing where to place foods and how to price them and market them in a way that will increase sales. That’s their job and they do it very well. The trouble is that they apply all the skill and knowledge to tilt the environment towards the wrong products. They don’t need to clean out the entire store but the amount of shelf space that you have does have some bearing on what people tend to choose. They have agency to influence what people buy.
They have power not only over decisions they make on behalf of the shopper, but also over their suppliers. They can insist on only taking products that have the Health Star Rating.
But the HSR is flawed, is it not?
It’s not perfect, it has a number of flaws that are being worked on, and it’s not necessarily the best system, but it’s the best one we have and we need it on every product. What we found is that it has mainly been placed on ‘healthier’ products, but it also needs to be placed on unhealthy products.
Based on your findings, what is your position on a sugar tax and how would you envision it working?
A sugar tax is one of the most widely used systems with the most evidence around reducing consumption of junk food around the world. As far as I’m concerned, it has the strongest evidential credentials, but because it hits the back pocket of highly profitable industries – namely sugary drinks – they put in millions and millions of dollars to fight very hard against it, and they’ve spooked the government. To date, successive governments in New Zealand have been too scared of the industry to implement the tax.
One day we will find a government or a minister that has sufficient courage to do it, and the population will be better off.
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