There is alarming evidence by academic literature globally that suggests university students are likely to experience food insecurity, as a result of low incomes and academic and social pressures. Food insecurity, without hunger, often means diets that are nutrient poor and energy dense, such as fast foods or take outs, especially when money is limited. Research has found that ‘food swamps’, as well as ‘food deserts’ are prevalent in Australia. Food swamps can be defined as areas where there is a higher density of food outlets selling unhealthy quick serve foods. Both environments create spaces where access to fresh food is difficult, especially if you have low earning capacity. We see now in the food and public health space that cultural, social and geographical factors that connect to a food environment influence the food security of people.
Local councils in Australia can play a role in supporting and encouraging their residents to achieve specific State and National Health goals. In developing mandatory Health and Wellbeing Plans, local councils in Victoria use demographic data to assign health goals that are applicable and pertinent for their particular group of residents. This demographic data is derived from census information that is not inclusive of the transient populations in some local government areas. Transient populations within an area can be some of the most prevalent groups that interact with a local food environment. You only have to consider tourism to understand this concept.
To explore this further, we used quantitative methods of analysis to understand the ability to access nutritious foods in 3 suburbs that interact with Glen Eira and Stonnington councils in Victoria which have high student populations. We analysed the ratio of takeaway outlets to fresh food, limitations of access to fresh food outlets and absence of cultural food outlets for an international student population in a predetermined grid covering the 3 suburbs.
Understanding how the demographic profile is presented by Glen Eira and Stonnigton’s Health and Wellbeing Plans paints a clear picture of gaps and unnoticed minority groups. These plans describe that Stonnington and Glen Eira residents ‘continue to enjoy higher levels of health and wellbeing than the rest of Victoria’. It also presents the council’s residents as high earning, home and car owning individuals. This is not untrue. While minor references are made to the emerging 8% Chinese what seems to be lacking, is acknowledgement of the international students, who comprise 49% of the student cohort in Caulfield. In 2015, that was 7826 individuals.
Marginalised students such as those from low income households, of differing abilities, and Indigenous or culturally diverse students will experience food insecurity more acutely than the general population. International students in particular, especially when culturally appropriate food is not available. Research has found that students often feel a sense of exclusion, including loss of identity when they have limited access to culturally appropriate foods. Cultural food outlets are of low consideration within these councils. The grid utilised in this data collection exercise includes only two cultural grocers, totalling only 3.3% of the total food outlets. Further, preview images of student apartments on Student Housing Australia are clear examples of the living conditions of the 6 student housing blocks defined in these two councils. These revealed the small size and lack of facilities in student accommodation, creating another deterrent to preparing food at home.
The absence of fresh food outlets is the most astonishing of the data collected as they only account for 8.3% of all outlets mapped; There were 5 resh food outlets in comparison to 33 take away outlets. In the northern side of the grid there is only one fruit and vegetable grocer. Inflation of food prices due to the high average income in the area means it is likely priced too high for the student population that reside in the three student housing buildings closest to the grocer, one as close as 100 metres away.
There must be consideration made for the role fast food outlets play as socially and culturally acceptable places for a number of individuals and the emerging Chinese population. Chinese restaurants constitute 20% of food outlets within this grid. In the event of realising the geographical oversupply of fast food in the area, there must be adequate spaces for these people to connect otherwise.
Recommendations were made in the research for joint collaboration efforts between the councils and Monash University. They primarily focused on opportunities for urban agriculture and a Food Strategy Plan with existing food outlets, both through examples provided in Cardinia Shire Council and Manningham City Council. Development of a community garden or reduced price fresh food market in East Caulfield Reserve could reduce insecure access to fresh food through being financially accessible and culturally inclusive. Additionally, the Food Strategy plan encourages and promotes development of healthy fresh food menus within existing food outlets. They have the opportunity to develop on the Food Checker Programs, that aim for the businesses to meet a criteria that contributes to meeting Healthy Choices guidelines. Further, elaborate and considered mapping data in local councils, alongside development of local food environment research could increase local councils’ knowledge concerning food outlets. An understanding of this is vital in the preliminary stages of removing impediments to food security, and creating healthier food environments for underrepresented population groups, however transient they may be.
The Health and Wellbeing Plan of both councils, and Monash University’s Health and Wellbeing resources and Nutrition service, view healthy eating as integral to creating a healthy population. They want these outcomes for their residents, their students, their community. The interesting and even painful realisation is that we don’t have laws in place to regulate the development of food swamps, or to disallow a business opening up on the grounds of public health. There can be questions, why should we care about the health of a transient population of people? How do we get funding, resources and energy into demographic groups that are unseen by a local council policy maker? We need to understand the interconnectedness of the food system to the community, to the government and to the economy. This is especially important for minority groups experiencing food insecurity, and a key concern of Australia’s Right to Food Coalition.
About the author
The author of this piece is Amy Tacey, and it was co-written by Savannah Supki. Amy is a Food Studies in Community Engagement student at William Angliss Institute with a keen interest in urban design of the food environment. They produced the small-scale research paper that founded this piece, under the guidance of Sophie Jamieson. It aims only to open the floor to possible future research in the space, with more resources, and quantitative methods of understanding a food environment that exceed those used here. The author would like to acknowledge this research was conducted on the land of the Wurundjeri people and sovereignty of that land has never been ceded. Further, it must be recognised the Indigenous peoples maintained sustainable food systems for thousands of years.
You can follow Amy on Instagram @foodonmybench