When this community took on the obesity epidemic, it came up with 400 solutions

The town of Hamilton, in Victoria's south-west, has been grappling with a problem.

In 2014, more than 20 per cent of adults in the Southern Grampians local government area were categorised as being obese, and almost 54 per cent were overweight.

The rate of children who were overweight or obese in Hamilton was more than 35 per cent.

Janette Lowe, executive officer at the Southern Grampians Glenelg Partnership, said something had to be done.

"We got about 160 people together [and] we shared that data [about the children], which created a sense of urgency," she said.

Their idea was simple: to "make the healthy choice the easy choice".

Would you drop your children 800m from school to make them walk?

Hamilton residents put forward 400 suggestions, ranging from the development of a food co-op, to produce swaps, to taking measures to encourage breastfeeding.

One of the programs that has been put into action allows parents to drop their children 800 metres from school so they can walk the distance.

Hamilton North Primary School set up the drop-off zone in 2018.


Before the drop-off zone was set up, the Manson children — Willow, 7, and Harley, 11 — didn't walk to school.

They are both now enthusiastic walkers and have taken up sport outside of school.

Harley said the activity had unexpected benefits — he used to stay up at night and found it hard to sleep, but now he feels tired at the end of the day.

"It's helping me with how I'm going in my sleeping habits," he said.

Teachers said students at the school were more alert in class.

"Their focus is a lot better, we find that often we take brain breaks with the kids so we get them outside moving for five to 10 minutes so that they can sit and refocus again it works really well," teacher Renee Riley said.

Statistics show the intervention in Hamilton is working — in the first two years since the programs were implemented in 2015, the obesity rate in children went down by 4 per cent.

It's a similar story for the adults.

Obesity rates in adults in the Southern Grampians Region dropped by almost 2 per cent between 2014 and 2017, and overweight rates have dropped by almost 4 per cent.


Making it easier to make healthy choices

Another project that has reaped rewards in Hamilton is an overhaul of snacks on sale at the local hospital.

"We typically served the old tuckshop-style food of party pies, sausage rolls, potato cakes, fried fish, chips, big muffins, chocolate muffins," John Headley, food services manager at the Western District Health Service, said.

Now, Mr Headley said offerings were "low fat, low sugar and low salt".

"So some really healthy salads [and] a big increase in vegetable intake," he said.

He said the overhaul of the drinks fridge to remove sugary beverages, which began in 2015, was a "big change".

"We basically sell water only," he said.

"Sales was an interesting aspect of this project, we were prepared for maybe a slight decrease.

"What we found was a huge increase in sales for the first three months of around 30 per cent … and [we're still] at a 10 per cent increase overall."

Food van delivers recipes to communities

Hamilton isn't the only community making a change.

In Tasmania, a program that delivers education to people who might live in food deserts — where access to affordable food is scarce — uses a food truck.


Emma Rowell works for the state's Child Health Association on a program called Family Food Patch.

"We can take [the truck] it into community centres, do pop-up events … and take the food samples to the people and show them how it's made," Ms Rowell said.

Kellyanne Williams, one of the students who has attended Ms Rowell's classes, said it wasn't always easy to access fresh food.

"The struggle in some communities is that the choice isn't as good as what you'd expect at a supermarket so they charge phenomenal prices because they know you can't get to a big supermarket, so it's cheaper to just do fish and chips sometimes for kids," she said.

Ms Rowell said lots of her recipes used frozen and tinned ingredients, such as pea fritters, made using frozen peas.

"It's really about changing that mindset that it's really expensive to eat healthily," Ms Rowell said.

"It's actually really not, but its about trying new things."

'Magic thing' helping communities succeed

Professor Steve Allender from Deakin from the Global Obesity Centre at Deakin University helps communities around the world come up with obesity solutions, and has been involved in the effort in Hamilton.

He said the most effective programs were community-led.

"The critical thing, the magic thing … that's created the change for those communities is … engagement with those communities in developing their own solutions," he said.


Ms Lowe said it was clear obesity was not an individual issue.

"This is the responsibility of our community and our society because we've all seen the changes over the past 30 to 40 years in how we eat and are physically active," she said.

"It's so wrong to think this is just an individual responsibility, this is a responsibility of our community and our society.

"In our community, it's a lot easier to make an unhealthy choice than a healthy choice."

Some of the solutions put into action in Hamilton:

  • Making school canteen menus and lunch orders healthier
  • Implementing a water-only zone at the local sport facilities and basketball stadium
  • Putting a healthy beverage policy into place in family day cares
  • Local health services implemented a workplace health eating and alcohol policy
  • Working to improve the taste and access to tap water with the local water authority and health service
  • Putting drop-off points around local schools to increase active travel
  • Installing new footpaths to increase active travel
  • Promoting community-wide screen free days
  • Offering healthy cooking classes for children
  • Providing free fresh fruit for community groups
  • Breastfeeding advocacy and promotion activities


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