Latest news: 8 April 2014.

If Sharon Friel needs proof that social and environmental factors determine a large part of what people eat, she only has to look at her own childhood in the east end of Glasgow.

“I didn’t see a fresh vegetable until I went to university because the local shops didn’t sell them,” she says. “My norm was eating highly processed foods because that’s what I saw every day for 20 years.”

A new project

Professor Friel, Professor of Health Equity at the Australian National University, is leading an Australian Prevention Partnership Centre research project that will unpick the many system factors, such as the relative lack of availability and affordability of healthy food, that contribute to Australia’s growing diet-related health issues of obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

“We know that most Australians are struggling to eat a healthy diet,” she says. “The question in this project is how to make the healthy food choice the easy choice and to do that in an equitable way so that all groups in society are able to have access to a nutritious, affordable and culturally acceptable diet.”

Professor Friel’s project is examining the different parts of the food system in Australia to identify what is needed to create a healthy and equitable eating – or HE2 – system in Australia.

“We will look at the policies that support healthy and equitable eating, around food production, food labeling, the retailing of foods, the price of foods and the marketing of foods,” she says. “Once we’ve identified the current state of play in relation to food policy, we will identify what it ideally should look like by analysing evidence and policies in Australia and internationally.”

Systems approach

The project will also take a wider systems approach to assess factors outside the food system that affect what people eat, such as whether the minimum wage reflects the real cost of healthy eating, and if public transport enables people to access healthy and affordable food.

The team will assess two current policy initiatives in Australia that are taking a systems approach to promote healthy eating: the ACT Whole of Government approach to obesity and later the NSW Healthy Eating strategy.

In these projects, the researchers and policy makers are equal partners, learning from each other, and sharing evidence and information about the realities of working across government to promote healthy eating.

These close ties between researchers and policy makers are a hallmark of the Centre’s approach, Professor Friel says.

“We will get a much richer understanding of the realities of the policy world and policy makers will have real-time evidence to use as they move forward with the initiatives, rather than having to wait until the results are published at the end of a research project,” she says.

By Marge Overs, Communications Manager, The Australian Prevention Partnership Centre

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