Public health researchers have established a connection between socio-economic status and accessibility to good sources of food. According to the experts, ‘food deserts’ are responsible for causing serious harm to those communities stuck within them.
The term ‘food desert’ was first coined to describe an area that offered limited access to healthy food sources and increased access to fast, cheap and unhealthy food. Technically speaking, an area is classified as a ‘food desert’ if it is more than a mile away from a fresh food grocer but less than a mile from fast-food options. As such, many Australian suburbs have been classified as fully blown ‘food deserts’.
A new mapping project has focused its attentions on the city of Sydney, leading to startling revelations about the nature of public health and access to healthy foods. Doctor Thomas Astell-Burt, from the University of Western Sydney, says that the issue reflects the wider socio-economic realities of an area.
“A person gets home from a hard day’s slog at work or picking up the kids or looking after dependents, then it’s easier, and more convenient to go to the fast food retailer or the take away”, Dr. Astell-Burt told the ABC. “What I think we need to do is work together — meaning the health sector, the planning sector, councillors, anybody who’s working in communities — to think about what are the strategies that we can use to provide people with healthier choices. For example, Oren Park, which is in south-western Sydney, not too far away from the university I work in. [It] has essentially had a Woolworths and other shops available right from the start, so people can choose to move into this neighbourhood and have great access to healthier foods right from the get-go.”
Professor Glen Maberly, a diabetes expert working at Blacktown and Mt Druitt hospitals, said that the prevalence of the disease within the western Sydney area was linked to the existence of vast ‘food deserts’. “It’s about two to three times the chance of having diabetes compared to the seaside suburbs and the inner-city suburbs, and it is related to the food that we eat. If you have diabetes, the complications are heart attack, stroke, kidney disease, eye disease. So this is becoming quite prevalent and so our whole health care program is now having to gear up to better manage that.”
In those affected suburbs, the emphasis is turning to prevention and lifestyle changes. “We have a western Sydney diabetes prevention and management initiative which is working with our local health district, and now [that] the primary health care organisations that have come into existence, we’ve created a prevention alliance,” he explained. “We work with the councils, we work with developers, food suppliers and those associated with transport and infrastructure. Clearly health isn’t those things, but health needs to bring people together, and start to make things change”.
Hopefully, with more attention focused on the innovative mapping project, the existence of Australia’s many ‘food deserts’ will be addressed and perhaps better understood.
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