My very first nutrition job involved translating dietary survey findings into interventions designed to improve ways of life of local school communities. This was in the mid-1980s post-Ottawa Charter health promotion era in Australia. We quickly learned that these programmes had limited value when the wider environments within which people lived frustrated healthy eating. Within indigenous communities, for example, it was not uncommon to have fruit and vegetables unavailable in remote stores, while cans of cooled soft drinks were readily available in manufacturer-supplied refrigerators.
During this period I was fortunate to work with a number of generous mentors and to be inspired by public health nutrition leaders including Barbara Smith, Mark Wahlqvist and Tim Lang. They challenged and taught me to extend the scope of my thinking, from nutrient concepts related to individuals’ diets, to the broader relationships that exist between food systems and population health.
In the 1990s I managed the Victorian Food and Nutrition Policy, and later the Nutrition section of what is now Food Standards Australia New Zealand). I learned that current food policies and regulatory environments are creating food systems that are non-sustainable, inequitable in provision of affordable and nutritious food, and that contribute to the escalating prevalence of diet-related chronic diseases. Public health nutritionists are especially well placed to challenge the business-as-usual model for food systems and provide evidence-based solutions.
Today I work at a university-based food policy unit that is actively involved in public health nutrition research, teaching and advocacy. Our goal is to reform food policies and regulations so as to improve the structure and operation of food systems so as to protect and promote environmental, economic, social and health outcomes. I’ve learned that while providing evidence to inform policy and practice is essential, evidence doesn’t speak for itself. I have needed to increase my critical analytical skills to appreciate the roles of politics, contexts and stakeholders in explaining how and why food policy is made in practice.
If we better understand policy-making, we are better placed to integrate public health nutrition considerations into decision-making processes and therefore improve policy outcomes. Also I’ve continued to learn the value and rewards of working closely with colleagues who are passionate about food policy research, teaching and advocacy. Many colleagues work in disciplines such as law, environmental science and economics that complement public health nutrition. They are providing the expertise to review legislation, and to understand where to intervene in components of the food system and develop cost-effective policy solutions.