Mayoral candidates asleep at wheel on junk food problem

Gareth MorganFood6 Comments

We know that our food environment has a massive impact on what we eat. One of the most effective ways of improving diets is to limit access to junk food, or making healthy food choices the easy ones. However despite the obesity epidemic worsening and the potential overload on our health system as a result, both central and local government are reluctant to make significant changes to our food environment. Instead local communities are leading the push for change.

Mayoral candidates sidestep issue

We recently asked a number of mayoral candidates in Wellington, Auckland and Christchurch if they had a healthy food and drinks policy and whilst many said they knew junk food was a problem, not a single one was proposing implementing a policy.

There are a few exceptions to this. Auckland mayoral candidate Chloe Swarbrick has called for tighter controls on locating fast-food outlets in poorer communities. Encumbent Nelson Mayor Rachel Reese has also removed sugary drinks from all council venues and events. They installed more water fountains and made water free and readily available at council events. If only more councils would follow Nelson’s lead.

Limiting access to sweet drinks is the low hanging fruit. Sweet drinks contain no nutritional value, are packed with sugar (which makes us obese and ill) and do serious damage to children’s teeth, especially if there is no fluoride in the water supply!

Calorie rich, nutrient poor junk food is ubiquitous, at sports fields, play areas, swimming pools etc. It is hard to avoid and even harder for parents to find a healthy option. We need to make the healthy choice the easy choice. Sweet drinks are a good place to start because there is no reason that they need to be provided in public spaces; water should be provided for free and is a much healthier option. Public premises should not be contributing to the huge burden our health system faces as a result of junk food.

DHBs and schools

We’ve seen DHBs implement a policy to remove sugary drinks from hospitals, thanks to leadership from Nelson Marlborough DHB. The Ministry of Education has encouraged schools to do the same; and while we have seen some progress uptake is generally disappointingly slow.

It makes sense to have healthy food and drink policies at council venues too, especially venues where children congregate such as pools. But if the response from the mayoralty candidates is anything to go by, this is unlikely to happen anytime soon.

Communities taking action

There is ray of hope, but that is coming from communities standing up, rather than politicians. Some of these communities taking action are part of the Government’s Healthy Families programme, which is operating in ten communities around the country.

In Auckland, due to the lack of action by the council, communities have taken the initiative and lobbied politicians to remove sugary drinks from vending machines. As a result the council has agreed to remove sugar-sweetened beverages from its 21 leisure centres across Auckland. It’s a good start but a long way from removing sugary drinks from all council venues and events. And it is even further from the overarching healthy food and drink policy that is needed.

More and more we are seeing that communities and individuals are going to have to take the lead on improving the food environment. There are examples all over the country, most recently a dairy near Rotorua has taken action into its own hands and has pledged to stop selling Coca-cola. We also know students in Otaki convinced their local supermarket not to sell sugary drinks to kids in uniform, students in Hamilton have done the same thing with local dairies – it is happening all over the country driven by communities.

Local politicians need to get serious about the health and well being of their communities and start thinking about the food environment. Having robust food and drink policies and making healthy choices easier to come by could really make a difference. In the absence of leadership from our politicians, people and communities need to start agitating for change. Ask your school, early childhood centre, church or marae to make a change for a healthier community and remove sugary drinks.

If you want to take action in your community, below you can download a sample letter to send your school. You can also send them a “water only” policy template that has been designed by the Ministry of Education.

Download now
Mayoral candidates asleep at wheel on junk food problem was last modified: October 5th, 2016 by Gareth Morgan
About the Author

Gareth Morgan

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Gareth Morgan is a New Zealand economist and commentator on public policy who in previous lives has been in business as an economic consultant, funds manager, and professional company director. He is also a motorcycle adventurer and philanthropist. Gareth and his wife Joanne have a charitable foundation, the Morgan Foundation, which has three main stands of philanthropic endeavour – public interest research, conservation and social investment.

6 Comments on “Mayoral candidates asleep at wheel on junk food problem”

  1. Shame you didn’t check out STOP Trashing Our Planet’s policy on junk food and removing all corporate sponsorship off public venues and events to STOP this ‘efficient philanthropy’ giving children mixed messages about alcohol, gambling, junk food and other harmful influences. So sports groups and others didn’t suffer from a funding crash this would be sequential with government asked to rightfully tax big business to fill in the shortfall. #VoteSTOP to STOP this rot . . .
    People can find out more on our blog
    Note also only candidate to score an A on housing AND who bothered to include a Maori translation!
    Not too late to #VoteSTOP if you drop your ballot papers into the nearest library . . . :}

  2. Put the true cost of junk food, and everything else for that matter back onto tbe industry. So have the industry as a direct expense pay for the social, health and environmental problems they create by excessive consumption of their product or service. So have booze contribute to the costs around road accidents etc. Plastic industry to the costs of cleaning up their mess, etc. I think while not easy would put the costs where they should be, make the cheap more expensive, and use the money to make the better choices more affordable. That is at govt level. So at the local level, a clean up rate added to the rates of all outlets using branded product that litters our streets, a levy for non healthy etc. Just a thought.

    1. Totally agree Chris. The idea of “free markets” with open fair competition for our consumer choices is a complete fallacy, as is the bogus right wing thinking that we should never interfere with these markets, acting as the “Nanny state”, and influencing the so-called free choices of consumers, including those of kids wanting to consume lollies, sugary drinks, junk food, etc. Intervening in certain markets identified as having social, environmental or health harm is in my opinion a civil duty of governments, both national and local. The idea that we should just all sit back and let corporations make mega profits over many decades at the expense of everyone else is ludicrous and pathetic unless you are part of the 1%, and the top 20%. Even then income inequality studies world wide (see “The Spirit Level” book) show that this outcome ultimately harms everyone.

      As you indicate, a relatively simple system of taxing the harmful products and using this money to subsidise the better healthier alternatives is the simple and obvious way to go. It should not be put in the too hard basket. Slap a sugar tax on all products that have added sugar, say 10 cents for every 1% added to the product and watch what happens! Remove GST from all fruit and vegetable, and bottled water (though we should just be drinking tap water in reusable containers). Pay a decent carbon tax, say $50 per tonne rising ever upwards to $100 to $150, and use all the revenue to subsidise low to zero-carbon alternatives e.g. renewable energy, better home insulation, electric vehicles, organic food over chemically produced food, trains and public transport ahead of building new roads, etc.

      I suggest voting Green for 2017 and New Zealand will for see some real progress in all these areas.

      1. Hi Rick
        I know I may sound like a greenie and in many ways I am. However i believe in the market as a starting point and believe if we were to truly believe in it we should apply full costs to where they fall. Costs of production, useage, waste and impacts. Why I could not vote geeen at the moment is that they still appear to have a penalise the rich mentality, as opposed to working on the root causes of the problens. Fast food, RTDs plastics, sugary drinks are all cheaper and more visable than the better stuff why? Because a premium is added for healthier items while the full costs of the unhealthy products are paid for by the taxpayer. Marketing and accessibiluty are also factors. BUT I also believe we as individuals must take responsibility for our choices So oerhaps a tax paid for bad choices is also an option. It is that balance I am looking for. I think also the inertia of government is more a bureaucratic problem than a political one. Cheers

        1. Hi Chris

          Not sure how we differ on this one? I think we are both saying that the market is the starting point, and that the markets require intervention when the true costs to society are not being covered in the price (externalised I believe the term is) and thus end up being paid for by whole of society i.e. corporations profit at our expense.

          Re. the Greens, I mention them directly as they are the only party in NZ that have policies that DO directly address the root of the problem, and don’t have the laissez faire attitude of the other parties. An example of which is end of life product stewardship, where the manufacturers and retailers are required to build in to the original costs of the product the cost of responsibly recycling the product as much as possible at the end of the product’s life. This could apply to literally thousands of products. A great example of which is cars, where the cost of responsibly reclaiming parts and then disposing of the rest is included in the original sale price and this component (say $500) stays with the car throughout its life and changes of ownership.

          Re “appear to penalise the rich mentality”, I’m not quite sure what you mean by this, as you do not specify?? My response however is to point out that being rich and possibly having huge ecological footprints through all that consumption (i) does not necessarily lead to happiness, and (ii) does lead to ecological overshoot, where on a planetary basis we in the West collectively consume three planets of natural resources, which is my opinion is unethical and irresponsible to both the current generation and the future ones. NB: World ecological debt day in 2016 was August 8th. This notes the day that we as a species used up all the Earth’s natural resources for our consumption demands, and from that day on we are into “overshoot” where we run down the natural stocks of resources such as clean water, clean air, topsoils, rainforests, vegetation and habitats in general, etc. etc. (see for more information). I mention all this to you because not mentioning the over consumption of the rich capitalist business as usual countries is quite literally killing the planet. So don’t believe the bullshit rhetoric that comes out of the mouths of the all the other political parties that by the absence of ever bothering to refer to the global environmental facts, would have us all believe that everything is good and “she’ll be right”. Things like NZ’s appalling record on fresh water management and action on climate change are just two glaring examples, that do get some publicity. But it is only the Greens, with the Maori Party thereabouts, fronting these issues with practical well thought out sustainable policies that support our economic well-being.


          1. Yeah, fundamentally I think there is way more that connects us than separates us. I firmly believe that the economic, social and environmental aspects of our small country and the planet are all linked, and for anyone to ignore any of them place the longer / medium term future in jeapardy. I am old enough to temember being able to drink from and swim in our rivers. I refuse to believe we cannot have dairy farming and our rivers back, it just takes a different outlook and willingness to change to make that happen. And that probably includes me. My dream goct would be a National Green Coalition. Have vited labour in the past but they need to be wat more aspirational than at present.

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