Australian universities fail to deliver healthy food on campus

Claire Halliday
Claire Halliday

Australian universities are not doing enough to promote healthy and sustainable food environments on campus, a new scorecard reveals.

An assessment of universities by Deakin University’s Global Centre for Preventive Health and Nutrition (GLOBE) in the Institute for Health Transformation (IHT), discovered the nation’s tertiary institutions achieved a median score of just 46 out of 100 for their efforts in creating healthy, equitable and sustainable food environments on campus. The top score was 66 out of 100.

GLOBE Co-Director and Professor of Public Health Policy Gary Sacks says, given the potential role universities can play in leading social change, the results were disappointing.

“University campuses have an important influence on the diets of students and staff,” Professor Sacks says.

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“Historically, they have been some of the first organisations to support young people’s health. For example, by implementing policies such as ‘smoke-free campuses.’ Universities are in a position to showcase a healthy and environmentally sustainable environment, and demonstrate the health, environmental and financial benefits of doing so.”

Nine universities across Victoria, Tasmania, Queensland and New South Wales opted into the assessment process and received a score out of 100 based on the healthiness, equity and environmental sustainability of their campus food environments.

More steps must be taken to support sustainable food options

The assessment was carried out in 2021/2022 and included analysis of: 1) university policies, such as commitments to sustainability and health and funding for action in this area; 2) campus facilities, including campus catering, advertising, events and vending machines; and 3) food outlets, including the types of food on offer and how they are marketed.

“We found some strong examples of universities working to improve their food environments by reducing food packaging, ensuring vending machines only sell healthy food, offering nutrition counselling and creating community gardens but none of these initiatives go far enough to score well on our scorecard,” Professor Sacks says.

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“Most universities lack comprehensive policies and commitments to make the necessary improvements to their food environments. Universities pay a lot of attention to where they rank against each other on research and teaching. These scorecards provide further opportunities to show leadership,” Professor Sacks says.

Key recommendations for universities include:

  • Limit the availability and marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages (such as sugary drinks) on campus
  • Ensure food retail outlets on campus are contracted to provide healthy and environmentally sustainable foods that are affordably priced
  • Show leadership by ensuring university catering and campus events promote the provision of healthy and environmentally sustainable foods.

More diversity needed on the menu

When it came to exploring the ways universities cater to the specific – often culturally influenced – dietary needs of international students, or domestic uni students who may be vegans, vegetarians or have food allergies, Professor Sacks says the research did look into the diversity of food options on offer.

“As part of the research, we looked into (amongst other things): whether universities monitor the dietary needs and preferences of all students; whether foods available on campus are culturally-appropriate; whether vending machines on campus include diverse, healthy options; and whether food outlets provide information about different dietary requirements. The results showed that, overall, much more effort needs to go into promoting healthy and environmentally sustainable food environments on campus, including catering to the diverse needs of the student population.”

Society must shift its thinking

He says budget does play a significant part in the way food is delivered to students and staff on campus.

“The research recommends that food retail outlets on university campuses are contractually obliged, through the tendering process, to provide healthy and environmentally sustainability foods that are affordably priced. This requires strong leadership from the university management to ensure this occurs,” he told EducationDaily.

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Unhealthy diets are among the leading cause of disease in Australia, says Professor Sacks.

With that driving his interest in the area – and this research initiative – he says we need large-scale societal shifts so that the places where we buy food support healthy diets, rather than promoting unhealthy foods.

“Universities can show leadership by eliminating sugary drinks from campus food outlets and vending machines. They offer no health benefits and they are not environmentally sustainable,” he told EducationDaily.

“Universities have an important influence on the health of young people, and so they’re an important area for health promotion.”

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Claire Halliday has an extensive career as a full-time writer - across book publishing, copywriting, podcasting and feature journalism - for more than 25 years. She lives in Melbourne with children, two border collies and a grumpy Burmese cat. Contact: claire.halliday[at]