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‘Food swamps’ swallow kids’ choices

How much do you think about the environment around you?

I don’t mean the big ‘E’ environment – the birds, trees and ocean. Of course this is important and we need to care about it, but I’m talking about the small ‘e’ environment – the spaces and world around us, every day, both inside and out.

Our food environment has been the focus of a three-year project by University of Auckland researchers – something never been done before anywhere in the world. They have mapped New Zealand’s food environment, the food we have access to and the messages we’re exposed to. That includes food composition, labelling, marketing and prices. It includes the food in schools and retail outlets and the messages in media and advertising.

The resulting report makes for alarming reading. The study says there is little doubt our food environment is a big part of our massive (pun intended) obesity problem. Most of what we are exposed to is unhealthy.

“People choose their diets from the food environments around them and when these are dominated by unhealthy foods and drinks, it is no surprise our overall diets are unhealthy and our obesity rates are so high,” according to Boyd Swinburn, who led the three-year study.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the environment our kids are growing up in. The survey found food in schools was ‘surprisingly unhealthy’. Forty two per cent of schools sold sugary drinks. Over 90 per cent of schools used unhealthy food for fundraising, chocolate bars still dominating, in a weird disconnect when everyone is worried about sugar.

Outside of school, things were worse. Within school zones, 500m from school gates, there was an average of nine outdoor ads for unhealthy foods. It was worse in more deprived areas – environments the researchers termed ‘food swamps’. In these areas, the concentration of takeaway outlets and convenience stores was also much higher – 13 takeaway outlets per 10,000 people in the most deprived areas, compared with three in the least deprived areas.

Food marketing to children is also alarming, being ‘heavily dominated by unhealthy foods across all forms of media and using techniques to engage children, such as premium offers and cartoon characters,’ according to the report.

There’s more disconnected thinking: 53 per cent of sport and recreation centres sell sugary drinks. This comes on the back of a University of Otago study that found the food sold at sports venues around the country is mainly junk food.

So, what can we do in the face of this obesogenic environment?

The researchers say we need regulation in many of the areas they looked at, and it’s hard not to agree. Controls on advertising to kids, rules about what can and can’t be sold in schools, taxes on sugary drinks… these could all make a difference. Surprisingly, our government has, to this point, shown little interest in any of them.

So, in the vacuum, we must arm ourselves with skills, information and tools to help navigate this hostile environment. We need to teach our kids to cook, and learn ourselves, so we can be in control of the food going into our bodies. We must foster an understanding and love of food in our kids, so they know real healthy food comes from the soil and sea. And we must teach our kids to be media savvy.

How to foster a healthy food environment at home

  • Talk to your kids. Explain why you make the food choices you do and why you leave some things in the shop
  • Involve kids in cooking dinner and making lunches. Arm them with the skills they need to feed themselves as they grow
  • Talk about the advertising and marketing messages you see around you
  • Lobby your child’s school to eliminate unhealthy food and food messages from its environment. The water-only schools movement is growing. Google ‘water-only schools toolkit’
  • Model healthy behaviour. Let your kids see you eating fresh, whole, healthy foods.
First published: Sep 2018



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