Rural and remote Victorians pay more for a healthy basket of groceries than their city-dweller counterparts, according to the results of a new study which shows that the cost of fruit, vegetables and other essential food increases by $8 for every 100 kilometres you drive beyond Melbourne’s CBD.
Researchers from Monash University examined the cost of groceries at supermarkets, randomly selected throughout Victoria, to determine whether distance from the capital influenced the cost of good food.
They found that the further you live from Melbourne – and, for some, the closer you are to where food is actually being produced – the higher the cost of a typical ‘healthy food basket’ containing a mix of fresh, frozen and tinned fruit and vegetables.
Senior lecturer of Nutrition and Dietetics at Monash University and lead author of the study, Dr Claire Palermo, reasons that transport costs and a lack of competition beyond the city centre could be to blame for the grocery price hike beyond Melbourne CBD.
The cost of fruit, vegetables and other essential food increases by $8 for every 100 kilometres you drive beyond Melbourne’s CBD.
“The problem is that food might be produced in the country but it has to first go out to the Melbourne Distribution Centre, Melbourne Markets, and then back out again [to be transported to the shops],” says Dr Palermo.
“So although Victoria is relatively urban compared to other rural and remote areas across Australia, 500 kilometres driving is still 500 kilometres driving.
“Transporting fruit and vegetables that distance from the markets all the way out beyond the centre will still have a cost.”
Dr Palermo says that although city living is expensive in terms of rent, people who live in the country endure other costs associated with distance (travel and fuel) that could decrease their potential grocery buying power.
“We also know that people in the country often have poorer health and we know that women in the country tend to be more overweight.
“This study showing the cost of food could be one of the reasons for that because the cost of buying healthy food is prohibitive to having a healthy diet.”
The study’s authors highlight an urgent need to investigate policy options to make healthy food more affordable in Australia and provide farmers with an ability to sell produce in rural areas.
“These strategies should not necessarily target local food producers that are already struggling to remain sustainable and economically viable,” the paper reads.
“However, targeted strategies are needed to modify the food system for low income earners – especially those living further from Melbourne or on minimum wages – together with whole-of-population approaches to promote consumption of healthy choices.
“Incentives for farmers to sell produce in areas where physical access may be limited and with links to food assistance programs may also be considered in light of the individual benefit (to farmers and consumers) as well as the economic benefit.”
Monash University researchers also looked at income and found that a family of four paid an average of $424.06 in winter 2012 and $451.19 in summer 2014 for a ‘healthy food basket’. The figures represent around a third of a families’ Centrelink household income.
Food contained in the basket included apples, bananas, onions, potatoes, lettuce; tinned fruit salad; frozen peas; a can of baked beans; white and wholegrain bread.
“The average Australian makes a whole lot of food decisions and the price of food is a big influencer,” says Dr Palermo.
The average Australian makes a whole lot of food decisions and the price of food is a big influencer.
“‘How much is this banana going to cost me’, is a question people take into consideration when deciding whether or not to buy healthy food.
“And if the combined cost of fruit and vegetables for a family of four is almost half of what the basket is worth, then fruit and vegetables are the things that most people [on low incomes] are most likely to not purchase.”
Dr Palermo stresses that if families on low incomes are not buying healthy food, they are most likely buying ‘discretionary food’: “that’s foods we don’t need in our diet like products high in fat, sugar and salt like biscuits, take away food, soft drinks and cakes”.
“Yet fruit and vegetables are one of the essential five food groups. They provide us with protective nutrients against cancer, in particular, and give us energy. They contain the vitamins and minerals we need to live the healthiest life possible. And we are certainly not eating enough of them.”
“People on lower incomes also have poorer health outcomes, more broadly speaking.
“We need to consider what specific, targeted strategies we can put in place to support them having a healthy diet.”
More work is needed to determine the collection of national data on the subject and a national strategy to promote healthy eating for people on low incomes.