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Australia’s fruit and vegetable consumption has plummeted. This is why

People are cutting back  on their food spend. Yet many of us eat as if there's a party going on.

People are cutting back on their food spend. Yet many of us eat as if there's a party going on.

Data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics recently reported an overall drop in food consumption by Australians, with vegetables, fruit and dairy products suffering the largest drop.

The implication from the data was that people couldn’t afford the sort of foods that are key to a healthy diet – with the post-pandemic cost-of-living crisis to blame.

Most Australians have been failing to eat sufficient fruit and vegetables for decades, with a particular aversion to vegetables.

In 2014-15, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 50 per cent of adults and 68 per cent of children ate sufficient serves of fruit.

However, only 7 per cent of adults and 5 per cent of children ate sufficient serves of vegetables, which means very few Australians were getting sufficient fibre (a key protection against colorectal cancer).

What’s our vegetable problem?

Why are we resistant to eating enough vegetables? Is it a matter of taste?

Dr Cherie Russell is a healthy and sustainable food systems researcher at Deakin University’s Institute for Health Transformation .

She says the excuse of poorly cooked vegetables might account for some resistance in certain parts of the population, but not as much as it did 50 years ago.

Instead, Russell paints a complex picture.

She told The New Daily that the cost of fruit and vegetables “has been an issue in Australia long term”.

The cost issue

One way of measuring affordability and quality of diet is with a tool called a ‘healthy basket review’.

Researchers use this to compare the cost of what a healthy basket of food might be from a supermarket.

“And they see how this compares with a basket of unhealthy food, which tends to be one more typical of the Australian diet,” she said.

“And for the last few decades the cost of a healthy basket has been much more than the cost of an unhealthy one.”

More importantly, she said, the proportion of that cost against what people are earning “is astronomical”.

For many people, eating according to the Australian dietary guidelines would require them to pay “30 or 40 per cent of their pay cheques in order to have a healthy diet”.

This, she said, “is just not possible for most people”.

Russell said the affordability issue has “definitely got worse with the cost-of-living crisis, but I don’t think it’s the whole story, either”.

Cultural shift

People are more time poor than they used to be. There are more households with both parents working and there is no one dedicated to planning, preparing and cooking meals.

Instead, they lose track of the fruit and veg in the fridge; it goes off, gets thrown out, and people reach for something quick and easy.

It’s this scenario that has aided the replacement of fresh produce with palatable ultraprocessed foods (chicken nuggets and frozen pizzas, for example) that are quick and easy.

A 2020 study found that ultra-processed foods represented 38.9 per cent of total energy intake among Australian adults.

Not all broccoli is created equal

In her own research, Russell found that in rural areas, people have the added barrier of fruit and veg not being available.

That is, what’s available at the local corner stores is “physically not enough for people to meet the dietary guidelines”.

And what is available “isn’t of the highest quality”.

“People don’t want to spend top dollar on food that is borderline and will go off in a couple of days,” she said.

“It was a shock to me. We’re telling people to eat a certain way and it’s not physically possible. It’s not helpful.”

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, about seven million people – or 28 per cent of the Australian population – live in rural and remote areas.

Meanwhile, she said, high socioeconomic areas have better quality produce than lower socioeconomic areas.

“There are so many issues with the food supply and over-arching food system it’s make it difficult for people to have healthy diets,” she said.

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