Food price research and policy

Over the past 5 years, our research has focused on identifying how we can create fairer opportunities for everyone to access, purchase and consume healthy diets – irrespective of their social or economic positioning. We have focused on identifying policy levers that can enable structural reform across our food systems. Recognising that the affordability of foods and drinks is a critical policy levers for equitably improving population diets, we established a devoted program of research. This includes:

Perhaps one of the most unique things about food pricing research is that it clearly highlights the intersection between food and social policies. We can intervene on retail food prices to incentivise healthier purchasing, but these interventions will be limited unless we also address the social determinants of diet, such as income, housing, and trade.

Indeed, our income support policies in Australia are inadequate – sitting well below the poverty line and second lowest in the OECD.

Working together to drive equitable food system changes

The current increases of food prices in Australia have triggered a significant increase in media attention to the structural drivers of inequitable food systems. Structural issues that have been stubbornly resisted in mainstream discourse to date – unless dominated by a narrative of individual responsibility.

Milk is the latest cost of living casualty with Coles announcing prices are on the rise. To discuss why some staple items are most affected by the cost of living crisis at the moment, @Rebecca7Maddern spoke with Dr @CZ_Christina, Research Fellow at Deakin University. #7NEWS

As this media unfolds, there are several reflections that we’d like to offer:

  1. Widespread interest in food price (and consequently the social determinants of health and equity) now exists. This has not always been the case. So, how can we keep working with the media to push our public health agendas – in terms of food, equity and social protection, and agricultural sustainability policies?
  2. We must retain the move away from neoliberal individualism discourse. Often conversations about individual-level solutions to structural food issues dominate in the media. Don’t be afraid to pushback and highlight the issues with this discussion. That is, an individual-level focus far too often overlooks the fact that the average Australian does not have the power to change food prices or their income and housing affordability; however, supermarkets and the Government do. Conversations about power imbalances cannot be silenced anymore.
  3. Whilst we acknowledge that healthy diets can be affordable for many Australians, it is important to keep our focus on the collective and our priority groups. Thus far, the lived experience of many privileged Australians has received most of the spotlight. It’s now time to share the experiences of those who have been seldom heard and silenced and apply this approach across the spectrum of food issues. When working with media, it is always important to reflect on who you are representing and who else needs be heard. Which communities are we missing?
  4. To ethically collect and put other people’s lived experiences in the stories that we are publicly sharing, a strengths-based focus that celebrates resilience and diverse food experiences should be included in our narratives. This includes (but is not limited to) appropriately reimbursing people for sharing their stories and being action-focused to protect them from exploitation and disempowerment by the dominant individualistic narratives around food.
  5. Finally, there is much we can learn from the giants that have been pushing structural dialogue for a long time. Fixing structural food issues means engaging with difficult conversations across the supply chain. But if we really want to see change, we need to collectively bridge the food research-policy-practice-media divides. For researchers and practitioners like us, it can take a bit of practice to navigate mainstream conversations about food, so they do not snap back to blaming and shaming, but instead bring our shared humanity and humility to the forefront.

The food price crisis provides a window of opportunity to address the deeply rooted structural issues that drive our volatile food pricing system.

We must now all work together – civil society, academics, media and policy makers – to put the transformation of our food systems for health, sustainability and equity at the top of the political agenda.

Written by Christina Zorbas, Professor Kathryn Backholer, Dheepa Jeyapalan (VicHealth) and Dr Sandro Demaio (VicHealth)