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Healthy food in remote Indigenous communities must be a top priority for NT government, health experts say

Giovanni Torre -

Health experts say the Northern Territory government "has a long way to go" in their efforts to address obesity and create healthier food environments, particularly in remote and regional communities in the NT.

The latest edition of government food policy scorecard, the Food Policy Index, shows the NT is the area where the greatest "policy action" is required.

Professor Gary Sacks from Deakin University's Institute for Health Transformation, who compiled the most recent report, said that while the Territory government should be commended for the steps it has taken to support Territorians to improve their diets, including improvements in the healthiness of foods in schools and hospitals, "there is still a long way to go".

"Supporting efforts to establish a licensing and accreditation scheme for healthy food retail in remote Indigenous communities needs to be one of the top priorities for the NT government," he said.

Professor Sacks noted that a key recommendation from the 2020 Parliamentary Inquiry into Food Pricing and Food Security in Remote Indigenous Communities was the need for a licensing and inspection scheme for all remote stores.

"The Healthy Stores 2020 study showed that restrictions on price promotion and product placement of unhealthy foods and drinks resulted in 1.8 tonnes less sugar being sold from 10 stores over 12 weeks while not impacting store profits," he said.

"If this was extrapolated out across all remote stores over a year, the reduction could be as much as 90 tonnes a year, which equates to the weight of 60 medium sized family cars. Modelling suggests that this reduction in sugar could result in a 10 per cent risk reduction in mortality from cardiovascular disease."

The Coalition for Healthy Remote Stores consists of remote retail, health and academic organisations; The Arnhem Land Aboriginal Progress Corporation, Laynhapuy Homelands Aboriginal Corporation, Central Australian Aboriginal Congress, Menzies School of Health Research, Healthy Living NT, The University of Queensland, Monash University, Indigenous Allied Health Australia, Heart Foundation, Diabetes Australia, and Obesity Policy Coalition.

On Monday, Monash University Associate Professor Julie Brimblecombe said the Coalition for Healthy Remote Stores calls on the NT government to include "additional requirements in the licensing program in line with what is known to work from evidence co-designed and generated with remote communities".

"We want to see restrictions on the promotion of unhealthy foods that include no promotions on unhealthy food and drinks; no unhealthy food and drinks in high traffic areas; no sugary soft drinks more than 600ml in refrigerators, and less than 40per cent of refrigerator facings for sugar sweetened beverages," she said.

The Arnhem Land Aboriginal Progress Corporation's Nutrition Manager, Khia De Silva, said storeowners and retailers "had done much to create healthy food retail stores but now it was time for government to help them do more".

"We can only put all the known healthy strategies in place when all stores operating in remote communities are doing the same," she said.

"With a level playing field, so much more can be done to create healthy stores for healthy communities. Our board has called for measures to support this level playing field which would be created by a strengthened Remote Stores Licensing Program".

NT Chief Minister and Minister for Health, Natasha Fyles, told National Indigenous Times the government understands one of the key contributors to better social outcomes is a healthy diet and lifestyle.

"This is why we continue to work to improve the health and wellbeing of Territorians by supporting and developing a range of nutrition and physical activity health promotion initiatives including policy, supportive environments, health education and community action," she said.

"We have a number of policies and programs in place such as the Healthy Stores 2020 policy action series, and Remote Indigenous Stores and Takeaways policy, which improves standards for healthy remote stores. It includes guidelines, checklists and strategies for improving access to a healthy food supply and standards in remote stores."

Professor Sacks noted that nearly 65 per cent of Australian adults, and 25 per cent of Australian children, are living with overweight or obesity.

"Less than seven per cent of people in Australia consume a healthy diet consistent with the Australian Dietary Guidelines. These statistics haven't improved over the past few years, despite obesity prevention being a national health priority.

"We now have a National Obesity Strategy with clear recommendations for improving food environments, but this has yet to result in any changes on the ground. State and Territory governments must play their part in implementing actions in the strategy to reduce obesity rates."

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