Making a meal of it: Unequal access to fresh food a health risk

The lack of easy access to fresh food in some part of Western Sydney may be having an impact on residents' health according to researchers.

Dr Thomas Astell-Burt, Director of Public Health Sciences at Western Sydney University, and Dr Xiaoqi Feng, Senior Lecturer in Epidemiology at the University of Wollongong, report the preliminary findings from their Mapping food Environments in Australian Localities (MEAL) Project in the Medical Journal of Australia.

MEAL was initiated in 2014 to explore geographical inequities in food environment in metropolitan Sydney.

The researchers calculated the number of greengrocers, supermarkets, takeaway shops and alcohol outlets within 15-20 minutes' walk from a person's home, comparing selected areas of Sydney's west and the north shore. "About 28 percent (868/3148) of neighbourhoods in the west had at least [a 3:1] ratio of takeaway shops to greengrocers and supermarkets, in comparison to 20 percent (546/2744) in the north," say the researchers.

"The equivalent results for alcohol outlets were 12 percent (365/3148) in the west and 5 percent (131/2744) in the north. For many other communities in the west, the availability of fresh produce within a reasonable walking distance is limited.

"Meanwhile, the provision of takeaway shops and alcohol outlets outnumbers greengrocers and supermarkets in many neighbourhoods in the west. In some of those communities, there is a takeaway shop but no greengrocer or supermarket."

The researchers wrote that these geographical inequities needed close attention, given the spatial disparity in Type 2 Diabetes risk already shown by the MEAL Project in the metropolitan area of Sydney - lower risk in the eastern suburbs and north shore, and much higher risk in the west.

"Investment in gathering local evidence driven by multisector initiatives (such as the Western Sydney Diabetes Prevention and Management Initiative) has to be part of the solution," the authors write. "What seems clear is that more of the same and a failure to take action on the status quo are unlikely to stem the flow of bad news for our fellow human beings who are living with and fighting [Type 2 diabetes].

"It is time we all work together to turn off that tap."

The MEAL Project is funded by the Western Sydney Primary Health Network and supported by the Western Sydney Diabetes Prevention and Management Initiative. The Medical Journal of Australia is a publication of the Australian Medical Association

Ends

14 September 2015

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