Thank you for taking the time to read the thoughts of a couple of young people working in health promotion in Victoria, Australia, on supermarket retail environments. My name is Julian and I live in regional Victoria, my colleague Khalid, 19, is based in Melbourne’s inner-north, yet we’ll share some common themes when it comes to our lived experience of shopping at supermarkets.
Entering the store:
"It’s me vs the world of ultra-processed food companies’ marketing budgets
Time to turn on my mental battle armour
Come on, you can resist the tasty treats!"
Against the backdrop of an intensifying cost-of-living crisis and soaring food prices, a sense of unease looms over me. I ruminate constantly over the same question. Will young people like me be priced out of the basic human right of nutritious food whilst the profits of corporations' increase?
‘The basket is getting lighter as the price gets higher’, Khalid Muse, 2023
For many of my peers aged between 18 and 24, independent living is common. However, their independence unfortunately often comes at the expense of an adequate diet. As food prices have increased, threatening food insecurity, young people have been forced to skip healthy, nutritious, culturally appropriate meals. Additionally, the purchasing power of young people has also significantly decreased.
My friend aged 19, who lives independently, describes going to supermarkets as “daunting”. She says that on each visit to the supermarket, the number of items she can purchase decreases and, subsequently, the weight of her basket gets lighter. The remaining few items in the basket are not the nutritious options, but rather the heavily marketed and convenient ultra-processed foods.
In my eyes this is unacceptable. How can we, as a society, bear witness to young people skipping meals due the rise in food prices? It is time we look beyond these profit-making ideologies that promote profit over the wellbeing of young people. Having access to nutritious food should no longer be viewed as a luxury, rather it should be seen as a necessity that is accessible to all.
‘The game of life: consumer choice vs supermarkets & multi-national food corporations’, Julian Fang, 2023
Supermarkets have an incredible opportunity to positively impact population health outcomes through changing their in-store environments to prioritise health over profit. The reality is that most consumers rely on supermarkets for their groceries as they are accessible and benefit from having widespread brand recognition. Furthermore, supermarkets tend to partner with respected food organisations that support their corporate social responsibility efforts. Yet, there is an even greater opportunity for supermarkets to contribute to positive societal change.
Changes such as replacing end of aisle marketing of ultra-processed foods and drinks with marketing of fresh produce would go a long way to embedding health as a priority as part of standard operations. Implementing small changes at a retailer level can then encourage rivals to ‘do better’, which would eventually lead to systemic and structural changes which would positively impact population health outcomes, and still generate a profit!
Supermarkets’ core practice of connecting growers with consumers of fresh, local, seasonal, and culturally appropriate produce has shifted over time which contributes to communities’ losing their connection to food. The era of satisfying consumer preferences with ‘perfect’ produce has passed and should remain in the past. Shoppers today have been educated and understand nature is diverse, and odd-shaped produce is beautiful! Yet farmers are far too often forced to dump tonnes of produce due to not meeting strict specification requirements.
The partnership with food rescue organisations should extend beyond what is not sold in-store to what is not fully utilised on-farm, for there remains tonnes of edible produce with cosmetic blemishes that are wasted before reaching supermarket shelves. Supermarket retailers can do much to support the transition to improved health and environmental outcomes through shifting the focus back to supporting a more equitable relationship with producers by reducing unnecessary specifications based on size and appearance of fresh produce. Today, the modern shopper is acutely aware of the urgency to act to mitigate against catastrophic climate and health disasters – action in this space is urgently needed.
Furthermore, the proliferation of the varieties of ultra-processed foods makes it even more difficult for communities to develop a meaningful connection with their food, especially as ready to heat meals offer convenience at the expense of nourishing food made fresh at home. From a public health perspective, it would be great to see a shift in focus from selling ultra-processed foods towards educating and empowering consumers to have the skills and confidence to create more home-cooked meals – an exercise which has great potential to reduce the consumption of ultra-processed foods and consequently have a positive impact on population health outcomes.
Imagine leveraging off popular TV shows such as MasterChef and inviting contestants to host in-store cooking demonstrations which could help educate and inspire consumers, but potentially also create a new revenue stream through special and limited freshly cooked meals. Think of the incredibly diverse food cultures that exist in Australia, and showcasing various techniques and flavour profiles which could inspire producers to diversify their production to support an increase in access and availability of culturally significant ingredients, such as banana leaves, taro and chrysanthemum greens.
The ongoing search towards cultural safety for culturally appropriate foods. The demand for indigenous Australian ingredients has skyrocketed, but how are supermarket retailers supporting opportunities for the traditional custodians of this knowledge to determine how and if they share their stories?
Consumers are up against a structural beast, one that influences our dietary choices greatly at a population level. However, the beauty of the beast is that it is far-reaching, so small changes in-store can have great effects for population health.
To conclude, here are our suggested recommendations for supermarkets:
More price promotions on fruit and vegetables instead of ultra-processed foods! Why not keep ultra-processed foods at the recommended retail price and use any financial gains to subsidize the promotion of fresh produce beyond current seasonal promotions whilst also paying farmers and producers a fair price?
Replacing promotion of ultra-processed foods and drinks by check-out counters with fresh fruits. Bananas could work well on shelves as a simple alternative to chocolate bars. Berries could be a good alternative to sugar-sweetened beverages on cold-shelves.
Replacing promotion of ultra-processed foods and drinks at end-of-aisles with promotion of pantry staples. Rice, lentils, pulses, pasta and eggs are all common pantry staples which could be great alternatives to promote.
Want to work to create healthier shopping environments? Join VicHealth and Nourish Network’s Healthy Supermarkets Community of Practice, email firstname.lastname@example.org