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Growing the role of local government in supporting healthy food systems

Introduction by Croakey: Next month, a global conference will put the spotlight on how law, policy and regulation can help improve food systems at local, national, regional and global levels.

Meera Senthilingam and Jennifer Doggett will cover the 2021 Global Food Governance Conference for the Croakey Conference News Service – follow #FoodGovernance2021 and this Twitter list of presenters.

Meanwhile, recent research analysing local government policies in New South Wales and Victoria suggests there is significant scope to boost local governments’ role in addressing the health and environmental challenges posed by food systems.


Amy Carrad and Belinda Reeve write:

Often, Australian local governments are thought to be limited to “rates, roads, and rubbish”. But new research shows they undertake a wide range of actions that contribute to a healthy, sustainable, and equitable food system.

An Australian-first study, conducted by researchers at The University of Sydney, The University of Wollongong, and the William Angliss Institute (Melbourne), analysed NSW and Victorian local government policies against a new framework based on the domains of health and wellbeing, sustainability and environment, economic development, food waste, food quality and safety, social policy, and planning.

This study aimed to map what local governments are doing to promote a healthy, sustainable, and equitable food system, with the goal of creating a database of relevant local government policies.

What we did

Between July 2019 and June 2020, we searched the websites of the 128 local governments in New South Wales and the 79 in Victoria to retrieve policies that contained actions relevant to the food system.

We then analysed these documents against a framework of recommendations for local government action to address food system issues (available through our website).

We included documents that local governments create under the integrated planning and reporting frameworks in each state, as well as Municipal Public Health and Wellbeing Plans developed under Victorian state public health legislation.

We also included a wide range of other policies relevant to the food system, such as those on health and sustainability. We excluded the main planning instruments developed by local governments under planning legislation due to their size and technicality.

What we found

See this detailed infographic giving an overview of the findings.

We analysed 2,266 documents in total. However, only 13 local governments (6.8 percent) had a dedicated food system strategy that described integrated actions across multiple food system sectors.

The two NSW local governments with such strategies were in metropolitan Sydney, and eight of the 11 Victorian local governments were in the Greater Melbourne metropolitan region.

The areas of the framework addressed by the greatest number of local governments were:

  • Provide education on/enforce food safety regulations (96.6 percent)
  • Support sustainable local food production (92.3 percent)
  • Reduce food losses and food waste (89.4 percent)
  • Host/support education campaigns and events on food system issues (86.5 percent)
  • Support access to safe drinking water (86.0 percent)

The areas of the framework addressed by the least number of local governments were:

  • Provide pregnancy dietary advice (1.4 percent)
  • Use economic measures to encourage affordability/consumption of healthier foods; discourage unhealthier foods (1.4 percent)
  • Restrict unhealthy food in vending machines under local government control (1.9 percent)
  • Restrict unhealthy food advertising; increase healthy food promotion (3.4 percent).

We found that Victorian local governments were more likely than their NSW counterparts to be acting on food systems, with the greatest differences for topics like promoting/supporting breastfeeding, supporting sustainable water management in food production and partnering with sports clubs to provide healthy options.

A comparison of metropolitan and non-metropolitan local governments also revealed significant differences.

For 22 of the 34 recommendations, metropolitan local governments were more likely than non-metropolitan local governments to have a relevant policy document, with the biggest differences being for recommendations to: ensure healthy food retail is easily accessible; support affordable housing; allowfood production on local government-owned land; and support home and community gardening.

Find out more

We recently released an Australian Local Food System Policy Database that contains the relevant excerpts from the 2,266 policies we analysed.

The database allows you to search by key term(s), framework domains or topics, council name, council type (metropolitan or regional), and state.

You can use a combination of these functions to refine your search – for example, by searching for a key term and using NSW as a filter. The results of each search can be downloaded as a CSV file.

There is a handy video on our website on how to perform different types of database search, and you can also watch it below.

Recommendations going forward

Our findings point to key opportunities for enhancing local governments’ involvement in addressing the human health and environmental challenges posed by contemporary food systems.

This will involve action at both local and state government level, as local governments rely on state governments for their powers and functions.

For local governments, there is a need for systems-based, joined-up policy. While those included in our study were undertaking a wide range of actions to address issues like nutrition and food waste, these were generally scattered across various non-food specific policies.

The creation of dedicated food system policies is a strategic opportunity for local governments to acknowledge the work they are already doing, break down siloes, streamline programs and resources, and involve civil society and community members in food system policy making.

For state governments, we make four key recommendations.

The fact that Victorian local governments were more active than NSW local governments suggests that NSW local governments could be supported to a greater extent through state legislative change and resourcing. NSW would benefit from a public health legislative framework (already found in Victoria, South Australia, and Western Australia) that sets goals and targets at the state level and requires local governments to develop a Public Health and Wellbeing Plan. This plan should explicitly require action on key food system priorities.

The NSW State Government should also legislate on climate change (as Victoria has done), and in doing so, make clear the link between climate change and health. Further, the NSW Public Health and Wellbeing Plans that we recommend should require local governments to act on both climate change and health, again focusing explicitly on food systems.

Our research shows that local governments struggle to address the sale and marketing of unhealthy food, including by restricting new unhealthy food retail outlets.

Both NSW and Victoria urgently need to amend respective planning frameworks to address local governments’ inability to refuse approval to new food outlets on public health grounds. This would help stem the phenomenon of ‘food swamps’ (geographic areas with a high density of fast-food restaurants and alcohol outlets and a low density of grocery stores and supermarkets).

Finally, both NSW and Victoria need to develop state-wide, comprehensive Food System and Food Security policies, which would empower and resource local governments and communities to set targets and objectives on key food system issues, and to work towards their achievement.

If interested in learning more about what governments can do to create a healthy, sustainable, and equitable food system, join the Global Food Governance Conference online from 14-16 December, hosted by the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre, The George Institute for Global Health, and The Centre for Legal Innovation on Food Environments.

Author details

Amy Carrad (pictured L) is a public health researcher, based on Dharawal Country (Wollongong, NSW). She is currently the lead research assistant on an Australian Research Council project investigating the role of local governments and communities in creating a healthy, sustainable, and equitable food system. She is also a regular volunteer at Green Connect’s urban farm, and a member of Food Fairness Illawarra. On Twitter, follow: @AmyCarrad

Dr Belinda Reeve (pictured R) is a Senior Lecturer at The University of Sydney Law School, specialising in public health law. She is also the lead investigator on an Australian Research Council project investigating the role of local governments and communities in creating a healthy, sustainable, and equitable food system. On Twitter, follow: @BelindaReeve


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