A heart for equity

The Institute for Health Transformation’s Dr Jennifer Browne has been awarded a 2020 Heart Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship to continue her research in food and nutrition policy for First Nations peoples.

Written by Judy Baulch

Dr Jennifer Browne’s Heart Foundation 2020 Postdoctoral Fellowship project, ‘Food and Nutrition Policy for First Nations peoples – translating evidence into action,’ builds on her experience and research as a dietitian, public health nutritionist and Alfred Deakin Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute for Health Transformation’s Global Obesity Centre (GLOBE). Her research focuses on which policy options in population-wide food and nutrition policy, such as subsidising healthy foods or restricting junk food marketing a tax on sugary beverages or food labelling rules, are likely to be most acceptable and effective for Aboriginal populations in Victoria specifically, but also the wider Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population.

The connection between cardiovascular health and nutrition is clear. Research shows that unhealthy diets are a major contributor to the burden of preventable disease in Australia and two thirds of Australians are considered overweight or obese, which puts them at higher risk of preventable diseases such as heart disease, our number one killer.

“If we can improve nutrition, we can improve people’s heart health,” Dr Browne says simply.

“I think we need to level the playing field so everyone has the opportunity to make good choices about nutrition. If you live in an area where there are fast-food outlets on every corner, or you’re on  a low income and good quality food is expensive, how are you supposed to make a healthy choice, compared to a wealthier person living where healthy food is easily obtainable and affordable? It’s clearly easier for some people to be able to make healthy choices than it is for others. What I’m interested in is how we can use state and national policies to level the playing field so that everyone is able to live a healthy life.”

Dr Browne has long been an advocate for Aboriginal health equality and levelling the playing field in access to healthy food and nutrition has been her focus since she attended a guest lecture given by two Aboriginal health workers during her dietitian training.

“I was so inspired by the work they did with their communities and I think that was the moment I decided I wanted to work in Aboriginal health and became interested in the broader topic of Aboriginal nutrition policy,” she says.

Dr Browne’s experiences as a dietitian at the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service and more than 12 years as a public health nutritionist with peak body the Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation Inc. (VACCHO) developed her awareness that improving nutrition requires changing the broader food environment and policies rather than focusing on individual behavioural change. It also became clear to her that governments didn’t prioritise Aboriginal nutrition.

“I thought, if we’re going to change that, then we needed to understand how policy decisions were made, especially at the Federal level, and how we can influence them” she says.

Dr Browne undertook a PhD in policy agenda-setting in Aboriginal health, with a particular focus on the degree to which nutrition has (or has not) been included as a policy priority and joined GLOBE in 2019, where her research (supported by a VicHealth Research Impact Grant) has reviewed the international literature to assess the effectiveness of food policy actions on Indigenous peoples In Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US.

During her Heart Foundation Fellowship, she will review the qualitative literature and undertake food policy workshops with Victorian Aboriginal communities, while continuing to work closely with VACCHO and Indigenous researchers at Deakin such as Alfred Deakin Professor and Chair in Race Relations Yin Paradies.

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are among the most researched people in the world and they’re often asked what their issues are but not a lot of action takes place as a result,” Dr Browne says.

“In reviewing the different consultation-type studies where Aboriginal people have been asked about their priorities and concerns around food and nutrition policy I plan to develop a clear picture that they have been consistently advocating for A, B and C  and hopefully we can use that to strengthen our case for action.”

 

Read more of Dr Browne’s work:

Effects of food policy actions on Indigenous Peoples’ nutrition-related outcomes: a systematic review: BMJ Global Health

First Nations Peoples’ Participation in the Development of Population-Wide Food and Nutrition Policy in Australia: A Political Economy and Cultural Safety Analysis: IJHPM

 

Read about our other Heart Foundation researchers