Recently Judith Collins suggested individuals should take all responsibility for their own personal choices that lead to obesity. It’s a bold statement and one aligned with outdated ways of thinking about obesity. It’s also a comment that reminds us of the importance of health care at the voting booth. One problem with Collins’ statement is that it assumes everyone has a choice. But what about children or the invalid? They can’t easily control what foods are available in the home. Historically an individual’s weight status was considered their responsibility. But research into obesity shows healthy weights go beyond our individual choices. We now understand obesity is also determined by our food environments.
The world health organisation defines a food environment as “the collective physical, economic, policy and sociocultural surroundings, opportunities and conditions that influence people’s food choices and nutritional status.” It seems complex until you see a food environment is simply everything else outside of our individual selves. The places we live, how much money we have, our family members, our genetics, etc. Some environments help us avoid obesity, others promote it.
Toxic food environments contain high levels of unhealthy processed foods available for purchase and consumption. It’s an environment that promotes a sedentary lifestyle, large portion sizes, and high levels of advertising around convenience foods. When you live in a toxic food environment, everything pushes you to consume vast quantities of the wrong foods. In the Far North, we’re bursting with these toxic food factors, particularly in Kaitaia.
Kaitaia’s Toxic Food Environment
So when we look at our food environment in our community, how are our people being supported to make healthier choices? Let’s look at some of our “environments” here in Kaitaia to see how much we promote good health and exercise.
The physical environment not only looks at what is available but also the location. For example, we only have one main supermarket, and it’s located outside the central part of town. For many people with limited transportation, it’s beyond walking distance. In contrast, we have countless fast food, takeaway, and convenience stores feature heavily on our main street.
Another factor is the promotion of physical activity. How easy is it for people in Kaitaia to be physically active? In other parts of the world and New Zealand, many towns have great walkways, interactive parks, and spaces encouraging people to get active with their whanau. But within the town itself, Kaitaia residents have little access to physical activity.
Where food is concerned, the economic environment looks at food costs. Do we promote eating healthy through pricing and availability? When we look at supermarket deals and reduced prices offered by supermarkets, they’re usually for unhealthy processed options. The price discrepancy makes whanau feel the unhealthy processed option is the best value for their money. Supermarkets play this to their advantage by locating their “Specials” aisle at the front of the store. When you walk in, you’re presented with loads of low cost foods with equally low nutritional value.
Food policy can play a strong factor in what foods are available and consumed. One of the best food policies we have seen come into play in recent years is “water only” schemes. Many educational facilities, marae, and now workplaces are promoting a “water only” environment to support whanau and the community. More businesses and organisations could adopt the same policy and add a water cooler for whanau to access. Promoting water over fizzy drinks and coffee is not only healthier, it saves money. Other food environment policies could include serving healthy lunches and breakfast in schools or limiting the number of fast food stores in town.
The socio-cultural environment places a large emphasis on what foods we actually eat. Typically, we want to eat the same amounts and types of foods as those around us. So by making the healthy option the standard, more whanau will begin to see it as normal.
Many of our tamariki are heavily marketed to by fast food chains and daries to consume unhealthy foods. But they’re not the only source of the problem. Schools can do more. Too often our schools choose promotion and fundraising efforts around unhealthy kai. Bake sales with sweets and lollies are still a favourite. But while these fundraisers may make money, there’s a hidden cost associated with them. They send the message that these foods are acceptable and that promoting them is doing good work. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Some schools are now choosing fundraiser alternatives like selling soaps or even healthy food options. Sports clubs around the area are also evaluating what foods they serve for hakari, especially where tamariki are concerned. So we are seeing more water and healthier kai being featured, but we are still a long way from where we need to be.
What Science Says about Obesity
Between 2014 and 2017, a comprehensive study was carried out in New Zealand by INFORMAS, which looked at our food environments. The study revealed some alarming food facts.
- There are 3.7 times more fast food and takeaway outlets in high deprivation areas.
- There are 2.8 times more convenience stores in high deprivation areas than in more affluent communities.
These stats prove that high needs areas like Kaitaia are targeted more by unhealthy food chains and stores. But it also shows another disconcerting fact: our council is allowing them to open in our community.
Obesity negatively impacts our health, both physically and mentally. It affects how we engage with others and participate in activities. It’s associated with the leading causes of death including heart disease, diabetes, stroke and some types of cancer. With New Zealand having one of the OECD’s highest rates of obesity in both adults and children, we really need to make some changes.
What We Do Now
So what can we do to transform our community into a healthy food environment? Let’s start by supporting our local growers, embracing cooking at home with the whanau, and avoiding processed foods sold on main street. Each of us can do something to help. Challenge food outlets in Kaitaia to serve healthier options and remove the fizzy drinks from their menus. Question those in power. Ask why our small town has such a high presence of heavily processed foods readily available. Support schools and sports clubs that make healthy options the norm. And encourage whanau to get out and be active together. If everyone takes action we can see improved health outcomes for generations to come.