Universities have an important role to play in creating healthier and more environmentally sustainable food environments.
The higher education sector caters to almost 7% of the Australian population. Food environments on university campuses therefore have an important influence on the diets of students and staff. University policies and practices to promote healthy, equitable and environmentally sustainable food environments provide a powerful way to positively influence staff, student and community health and wellbeing.
Benchmarking campus food environments
The Uni-Food initiative aimed to assess the extent to which universities in Australia are creating healthy, equitable and environmentally sustainable campus food environments. The initiative also aimed to identify practical actions to improve university policies and practices in this area.
The Uni-Food tool was developed in 2020/2021 by a national expert working group consisting of public health researchers, health promotion practitioners, and food retail professionals based on global recommendations of good practice and the best-available evidence, tailored to the Australian context. The Uni-Food tool was developed as part of INFORMAS – a global network of researchers (active in over 65 countries) that aims to monitor, benchmark and support actions to improve the healthiness of food environments.
The tool assesses universities policies and practices against 61 indicators of good practice across three components.
Assessment of campus food environments in Australia 2023
Nine Australian universities across four states and territories (VIC, TAS, QLD, NSW) were assessed between 2021-2022 on the healthiness, equity and environmental sustainability of their campus food environments using the Uni-Food tool.
The process involved data collection from desk-based and campus-based audits, in close collaboration with staff and students at each university.
Universities were given an overall score from 0-100, based on their performance across the indicators in the Uni-Food tool.
Prioritised recommendations were developed for each university and the sector overall.
Overall ranking and scores
University scores ranged from 27/100 to 66/100 (median = 46/100). Overall, universities scored highest in the ‘Campus facilities and environment’ component (median = 57/100) and lowest in the ‘University systems and governance’ component (median = 29/100).
We found some strong examples of universities working to address the healthiness, equity and environmental sustainability of food environments.
Areas of strength
- Some universities had made a commitment to improving the healthiness, equity and environmental sustainability of campus food environments.
- All universities had strategies in place to address environmental impact concerns, for example, waste and recycling, food packaging and serving ware, water use and energy and emissions.
- The majority of universities had initiatives in place to develop staff and student skills and awareness around healthy and sustainable food, for example, community gardens and nutrition counselling.
- Some universities had negotiated contracts with vending machines suppliers to ensure healthy food is promoted.
However, most universities lacked comprehensive high-level policies and commitments to improve the healthiness of their food environments.
Priority recommendations for universities
- Create university-wide policies that limit the availability and promotion of unhealthy foods and beverages (e.g. sugary drinks) on campus
- Ensure food retail outlets on campus are contracted to provide healthy and environmentally sustainability foods that are affordably priced
- Show leadership by ensuring university catering and campus events promote healthy and environmentally sustainable foods
Other stakeholders, including governments, can play a role in incentivising universities to adopt recommended actions and contribute to efforts to create healthier, equitable and more environmentally sustainable food environments for the populations they serve.
The project team and funders
This study is coordinated by the Global Centre for Preventive Health and Nutrition (GLOBE) at the Institute for Health Transformation (IHT) at Deakin University. This work was supported by an NHMRC Centre for Research Excellence entitled ‘A Centre of Research Excellence in Food Retail Environments for Health (RE-FRESH)’ (2018/GNT1152968).
For more information about the Uni-Food initiative, please contact Prof Gary Sacks email@example.com
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