Public concern over high food prices shows how meeting basic human needs cannot be taken for granted, even in a country like Australia.
Food prices are only part of the equation that determines access to food – and healthy eating more generally. Just as poverty for some can be hidden within a relatively wealthy community, lack of access to affordable fresh food can be a problem even in our largest cities.
The term “food desert” describes this concern. It is believed to have been first invented in the UK. It is now widely used in the United States and also in Australia.
People living in food deserts do not have easy access to food stores. This is usually due to combinations of:
distances traveled due to low density suburban sprawl
limited transportation options
zoning policies that prohibit the dispersal of stores in residential areas
retailer business decisions that an area’s household finances will not support a viable food outlet.
The term “healthy food desert” describes an area where food stores are available, but only a limited number – if any – sell fresh, nutritious food.
Our recent research examines whether food deserts could exist in a large local government area in western Sydney. We mapped the locations of outlets providing food – both healthy and unhealthy foods – and local levels of disadvantage and health problems.
Our first results are worrying. We found that nearly two-thirds of suburbs have no grocery stores. In those that do, only 16% of stores are healthy food outlets.
The maps also show strong correlations between these food deserts and areas of poor public health and socioeconomic disadvantage.
How did the study rate the area?
Our research took a rapid assessment approach to determine if food deserts might be present in the study area.
The health data of Australian health policy collaboration indicate the rates of overweight and obesity, diabetes and premature death from cardiovascular disease in these regions.
As for the physical environment, the territory of the local administration is composed of large single-use residential areas, inconvenient distances from shops and numerous fast-food establishments. Walk score suburban ratings indicate how much a car is needed for almost any errand. People without cars face real barriers to accessing affordable and healthier food options.
We used other datasets (online business directories, store locators and Google maps) to plot the locations of food outlets and make an initial assessment of the types of food they offer. We broadly categorized them as “healthy” (chain and independent supermarkets, multicultural grocery stores – mostly Asian and African in this area – and fruit and vegetable stores) and “unhealthy” (independent and franchise take-out stores and some restaurants and cafes).
We have mapped health and habitability indicators and food outlets in different colors.
Colored maps provide quick, informative and accessible assessments of the situation. Because community members can easily interpret them, the maps can help inspire the community to take action to improve the situation.
What did the study find?
Overall, “unhealthy” food outlets represent 84% of all food outlets in the local government area.
In addition, all food outlets (healthy and unhealthy) are located in 14 suburbs. This means that 22 suburbs have no grocery stores. The 14 suburbs with food stores also typically have more—sometimes significantly more—unhealthy than healthy stores.
The mapping also shows a strong correlation between suburbs with large proportions of unhealthy shops and those with higher levels of disadvantage (using the Australian Bureau of Statistics index of relative socio-economic disadvantage). The suburb ranked most deprived, for example, has six unhealthy food stores but no healthy food stores. Its walk score indicates that residents are car-dependent and able to do some errands on foot.
Our rapid assessment method does not provide all the answers. Care must be taken not to fall into the trap of overinterpretation.
Nor should food stores themselves be taken as a proxy indicator of healthy or unhealthy eating. They are just one of many factors to consider when assessing whether people are eating healthily.
What can be done about these problems?
It is clear that large parts of this urban area are not supporting the health and well-being of residents by providing good access to healthy food choices.
Urban policy can be effective in eliminating food deserts. Social, land-use planning and community health actions must always be specific and targeted to needs.
After all, food choices are not just the result of personal preferences. The availability of food outlets and the range of foods they sell can influence these choices and, by extension, nutrition and health.
Our findings indicate where targeted surveys should be directed. Determining the exact nature of this lack of choice will help policy makers determine what can be done about it.
It’s an approach worth taking across Australia to check where there might be similar hidden issues.
Our to study lists other proven tools to facilitate follow-up research that our work has shown to be needed. These include:
on-site assessments of individual catering outlets
assessments of the freshness and affordability of the items offered
more detailed local accessibility data
direct surveys of residents’ experiences of their local food environments.
We all deserve to live and work in places that inherently promote, rather than harm, healthy choices and behaviors, and therefore our health itself.
Ruvimbo Timba, Planning Officer in the NSW Department of Planning and Environment and formerly of the University of Western Sydney, is co-author of this article.