When it comes to the availability of healthy or unhealthy food options, the rural-urban divide is nothing but an illusion – as the country is a continuum of how far away people live from food access.
A recent study in the Asia Pacific journal of clinical nutrition shows only 0.2% of the total land area in New Zealand has been used for growing vegetables and food deserts, a country where there are lots of fast-food and takeaway options and no healthy food stores on the rise.
Although large urban areas were more likely to have access to healthy food options in stores, people living in rural areas of Aotearoa tended to have a healthier diet, because they grew their own vegetables .
But Kate Parker, a vegetable grower living on a ¼ acre section in Waitara, said growing 90% of her family’s fruit and vegetables intake was not difficult – “you just gotta start”.
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The Parkers lived in a small urban area and had more than 20 fruit trees and dozens of vegetable plants spread all over their garden.
Three years ago, when they moved 21km east from a western suburb of New Plymouth with a newborn baby, they wanted to save money by growing a sustainable garden.
Today, they only travelled once to the supermarket every fortnight, and froze, dehydrated and preserved their produce to eat that in the off-season.
“It had had a massive impact on our food budget. We eat vegetarian six days a week and then cook meat once. It’s been a massive game-changer for us, for our health, for our mental health.
“The biggest thing has been trying to teach our daughter about where food comes from and how to grow her own food. Just trying to better soil and leave the world in a better place for her.”
Vegetable gardens were increasing in urban and rural areas, but the amount of fast food outlets was still impoverishing Kiwis’ diets and keeping ⅓ of the country’s population obese.
AUT professor emeritus in nutrition Elaine Rush said urban areas had more healthy food options available and rural stores that sold food had “quite a responsibility”.
“Usually they are the only ones in the area that sell food,” she said.
“So it’s not just providing an ice cream or an ice block, it’s the necessities of life that they are supplying too.”
Highly-processed, tasty and cheap food options were the most accessible ones, but not the ones that improved health.
“When you start eating a bag of potato crisps you don’t stop at five, do you?”
Rush called for central planning around the food produced in Aotearoa.
“At the moment we seem to be focused on producing food for export to make money.
“But there also needs to be a focus on producing affordable food in New Zealand for New Zealanders and making sure they have access to it.”
As socioeconomic factors rather than personal choices drove people to choose a diet, Kiwis in the future needed to look for more wholesome and less refined food.
In Karamea, a 90 minutedrive away from Westport, Abylene Chalmers had been growing a “food forest” to feed her family for the last 18 years.
She felt quite strongly about the reach of fast food outlets selling “junk food” to the country’s population.
“I don’t ever want to eat anything like that.”
Chalmers said not a lot of space was needed to grow “your own food” and she was frustrated about the narrative that belittled having a garden as something that would not affect a family’s diet and finances.
“People just think they have to resort to junk food because they can’t buy better options.
“It’s a real shame when there are so many healthier, affordable options such as growing your own.”