Researchers from Deakin University’s Institute for Health Transformation (IHT) are this week celebrating a $1.2M funding announcement that has given the green light for a project to test and refine real-world solutions for the large-scale application of healthy food retail interventions in local government settings across Australia and beyond.

The five-year NHMRC Partnership Grant has been awarded to the ‘Promoting CHANGE: Community Health and Nutrition and Government Engagement’ project at IHT’s Centre of Research Excellence in Food Retail Environments for Health (RE-FRESH), which has been in development by Dr Miranda Blake since June 2020.

Dr Blake is an Alfred Deakin Post-doctoral Research Fellow within IHT’s the Global Centre for Preventive Health and Nutrition, and leads a program of work within RE-FRESH.

The project includes a further 12 RE-FRESH researchers, in partnership with the Victorian Department of Health, Sport & Recreation Victoria, Nutrition Australia (Victorian Division), Municipal Association of Victoria, and nine Victorian Local Government Authorities (LGA) — City of Greater Bendigo, Maroondah City Council, City of Greater Shepparton, City of Greater Geelong, City of Monash, City of Moreland, City of Yarra, Nillumbik Shire Council and the City of Knox.

Together these partners bring an additional $1.2M in value to the project, through resourcing and in-kind support.

This partnership will rigorously test a healthy food retail implementation framework over three years in the local government partners’ retail food settings, such as in their sport and recreation facilities.

The project will expand upon RE-FRESH research supporting retailers to plan healthy interventions, and local governments’ food policies.

The research will address the complex and challenging issues that policy makers, retail managers and service providers face when making decisions on effective, feasible, and value-for money approaches to creating healthy community food retail environments.

The results will be used to refine a support model for broadscale use by Australia’s 500+ local governments, along with community organisations, healthcare settings and schools. The model also has the potential to transform the way commercial retailers approach the provision and implementation of healthy food interventions both nationally and globally.

Dr Blake said it was “incredibly exciting” to receive the news that the project had been funded, with preventive work to address the diets of Australians the key to improving population health.

“What we do know is that poor diets are the key modifiable risk factor for death and disease in Australia, with suboptimal diets responsible for 15 per cent of deaths in this country.

“The retail settings in which people buy their foods and drinks have an enormous role to play in driving the over-consumption of foods high in salt, sugar, and unhealthy fats, and thus the broad community reach and control local governments have over so many retail food settings presents an important opportunity for making change.

“Our team was the first to demonstrate that food retail initiatives in local government settings that change product availability, price, promotion and placement of healthy food and drink, can improve the healthiness of customer purchases, without financial loss for retailers.

“We are enormously grateful to have been given the opportunity via this NHMRC Partnership Grant to harness the strong partnerships we have developed for this project to develop the evidence required to move this work forward.”

This project extends the findings of a 2018-20  VicHealth-funded project  evaluated and released as a report and paper by RE-FRESH researchers. It also responds to need identified in a 2020 RE-FRESH-led national survey of local governments which highlighted both local government interest in promoting health, as well as a lack of resourcing to take action to promote healthy food and drink provision in council-owned sport and recreation facilities.

Director of both RE-FRESH and IHT, Alfred Deakin Professor Anna Peeters said the Promoting CHANGE project funding success was a testament to the strong multi-stakeholder relationships the centre had forged since it began in 2019.

“Our approach has always been to include the perspective and needs of all stakeholders to ensure we contribute to practical, real-world solutions that improve diets and overall population health.

“There are now five exciting years ahead, and we can’t wait to see the outcomes of this research and the potential impact it could have.

“Within our CRE we work to nurture and support our early and mid-career researchers to undertake meaningful work that improves population health.”

“I wish to acknowledge the hard work of Dr Blake, her research team and the partner organisations who have collectively achieved this great result.”