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Partnerships to promote access to healthy food for all

Posted by School of Health Administration on February 13, 2020 in Research, News
Dr. Catherine Mah is partnering with Indigenous communities and Australian researchers to improve access to affordable food
Dr. Catherine Mah is partnering with Indigenous communities and Australian researchers to improve access to affordable food

A six-year international collaboration between researchers at Dalhousie, Monash University, Menzies School of Health Research, and the University of Queensland (UQ) has culminated in a $2 million award to fight food insecurity among Indigenous communities in remote Australia.

Dr. Catherine L. Mah (School of Health Administration, HPI) is one of the Chief Investigators for the study Giving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children the Best Start in Life: Improving Healthy Food Affordability and Food Security in Remote Australia. She is the Canada Research Chair in Promoting Healthy Populations in the Faculty of Health and an Associate Professor.

The focus of the three-year study will be improving food security among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, working closely with communities. The project is the latest in a continuing collaboration between Dr. Mah and researchers from Australia. Chief Investigator A (equivalent to NPI) on the study is Dr. Megan Ferguson, University Queensland (UQ).  Dr. Mah is the equivalent to a Co-PI on the study.

How to solve food insecurity?

 “No one disagrees that food insecurity is a serious problem and that it results from inadequate economic access to food, but there is disagreement on the solutions.

Households with lower or fixed incomes can’t take advantage of savings through bulk purchases, and regularly make hard choices with their budget. After they go through the fixed costs, there is only so much discretionary income left over each month, if any at all.

Should we even focus on food at all, or give people money so they can afford healthy food? These are just some of the big questions around food insecurity and the cost of a healthy diet, questions we aim to tackle through this research,” Dr. Mah says.

Growing poverty and food costs in remote communities are two key factors associated with food insecurity for 31 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living in remote communities (although research suggests this may be as high as 62 per cent).

The study was funded by the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) and designed in conjunction with the Apunipima Cape York Health Council and Central Australian Aboriginal Congress. Phase one of the study will analyse how price discounts, offered via loyalty cards, affect the affordability of a healthy diet and shape purchasing. In phase two, participants will capture their experience through photos and use these to develop a framework of solutions that can be translated to health policy.

Other institutions involved in the study include University of Illinois, Menzies School of Health Research, Monash University, and James Cook University.

Ongoing collaboration and evidence sharing

For the last six years, Dr. Mah has been collaborating with communities, researchers, retailers, and policymakers in Australia, beginning when she was working in Newfoundland and Labrador examining healthy food planning and assessments for rural communities in that province. Dr. Julie Brimblecombe (Monash University) was doing similar work in remote Indigenous Australia. Together, their Healthy Stores 2020 pragmatic trial looks at how to use retailing tools to create a healthier food environment for all.

The research project assesses the impact of reducing marketing and promotion of high-sugar drinks and food in Australia. Analysis is ongoing to examine the effect on purchasing as well as profitability in Northern Territory and Northern Queensland stores that implemented Healthy Stores 2020 intervention.

“Inequitable access to a healthy diet is the leading preventable cause of death and disability in the world,” says Dr. Mah. “Healthier diets are essential to achieving our full human potential and the Sustainable Development Goals. The Healthy Stores 2020 project focuses on the role of the store, the retail food environment and what governments can do from a policy perspective in partnership with communities to address this problem.”

Healthy Stores 2020 was presented to the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) Health Council in Perth last fall. COAG is the peak intergovernmental forum in Australia, involving the Prime Minister, state and territory First Ministers, and the President of the Australian Local Government Association. In highlighting the project, Ministers “welcomed the research findings and encouraged all retailers to consider adopting strategies that encourage consumers to purchase food and drink low in added sugar.”