I had always aimed to work in community or public health nutrition. My education included a science degree, an education diploma and then nutrition and dietetics. I took my first position as a health promotion officer in the South Australian Health Commission. This was a terrific opportunity as the health promotion field was in its infancy and it allowed me to quickly develop a range of new skills. On the down side this took me away from nutrition. However, I gained much experience both in developing and managing state-level programs, and also in the mechanisms of government. I was instrumental in developing the first Australian health promotion policy – Making South Australia a Healthy State.
Equally important, I was in a politically progressive State which supported the rights of women, decriminalised homosexuality, and established community run health clinics and services from the mid 1970s. Social justice was the accepted norm and it informed policy making and program development. South Australia also has a strong history of cultural diversity, local agricultural production, home gardens, good wines and fishing. This environment was a strong influence on my later work. I progressed in my education with a Masters in Public Health and later moved to an academic institution to help set up the first dietetic training programme with a strong community nutrition profile. I also was active in professional associations, establishing community and public health nutrition committees and working on food standards change. I helped write the first nutrition and food security policy for the Public Health Association of Australia.
When I completed my Doctor of Public Health dissertation on food policies and local government, I started to be more involved in policy making. I had the opportunity to be a board member of our food standards agency at a time when the entire food standards code was being rewritten. We managed to include some key changes, such as mandatory nutrition information panels, declaration of key allergens and percentage ingredient labelling. These labelling requirements only partly offset the concurrent changes in the food supply as new international trade agreements enabled sports drinks, pre-mixed alcoholic drinks and various high fat / high sugar products to flood our supermarket shelves. I also had opportunities to work in the assessment of complementary medicines (dietary supplements), food safety and agricultural policy (managing the BSE risks, agricultural and veterinary medicines and animal welfare). More recently I was involved in a national review of food labelling law and policy, the recommendations from which are now starting to influence government policy in a number of areas, including an Australian government commitment to develop a national nutrition policy.
My involvements in policy work have been from the perspective of a public health and public interest advocate. It has primarily involved advocacy for community involvements in policy making, how to change policy consultation with communities to be more effective and meaningful and to keep community interests to the fore. Being involved across the range of food, health, medicines and agriculture sectors has been a unique opportunity and well suited to the current food policy debates. I have observed that a key to community involvement in policy is education – in nutrition, the food system and citizenship. Communities are being duped into thinking the current food system is the only way it can be. And they don’t realise the costs they are paying – in their families’ health, to their incomes and to the environment.
I think the role of education has been taken for granted and overlooked by health professionals. For example in much of Australia we’ve allowed home economics – including cooking skills – to be withdrawn from our schools. We accept education in consumer rights in preference to citizenship. And basic nutrition and food education of our health professionals has been ignored. Policy advocacy can’t happen when people don’t know about the issues and our potential allies, other health professionals, don’t recognise the importance of nutrition and food challenges. I am currently involved in a number of research projects with an education focus, including developing a hierarchy of food knowledge for young adults, women’s perspectives on nutrition education during pregnancy, nutrition education of midwives and primary school kitchen and food garden initiatives.
My work at the university has also focused on nurturing young people to find ways to address the key public health nutrition issues. Not only have we set up our own program in public health nutrition, but I am fortunate to be able to work with like-minded academics from across Australia who are also working toward strengthening public health nutrition practice. We are completing a project to develop professional competencies for our programmes and are now considering the next challenges of getting those competencies embedded into academic programmes and mentoring our younger academics to be the future leaders in our discipline. I am now keen to further this work through the World Public Health Nutrition Association with professionals in other countries.