Half of Australians are experiencing a long-term illness, many of which are related to lifestyle factors like the food we eat, and our levels of physical activity. Two of the most significant factors are the postcode in which you live and the food you have affordable access to. These are the facts presented by ABC Series Magda’s Big National Health Check, which hit our screens on 1 November, and these are the very real and serious issues being faced on an increased level in regional communities across Australia.

In the Hepburn Shire in Victoria, a small health promotion charity operates with a big vision to inspire healthy and sustainable change in communities. Health Futures Australia (HFA) was set up in 2019 to drive sustainable change to the systems that keep many of the problems in place and negatively impact our health.

“Changing food systems through innovative practices that support improving food knowledge and and access to nutritious food in the Hepburn Shire, where we live is at the centre of our focus,” said Dr Shelley Bowen, CEO of HFA.

“With 9 out of 10 children not eating the recommended amount of fruit and vegetables for health benefits it’s clear the current system is flawed, and something has to change,” she said.

The organisation adopts a social enterprise approach, using commercial principles for long-term sustainable environmental, social and health benefits. The SHIFT – Sustainable Healthy Integrated Food Towns initiative is a system-changing effort to create a new service for healthy school lunches known as the Healthy Lunch Kitchen. The organisation also has a Young Growers program, aimed at inspiring a passion for fresh food growing and cooking in young people, this initiative has also sparked the first SHIFT Traineeship in healthy food systems and horticulture, and the HFA team are now setting their sights on offering a cooking school that supports the well-being of local people by getting them excited about cooking and growing nutritious food.

The SHIFT Healthy Lunch Kitchen commenced in early 2021 which Dr Bowen admits has made momentum-building difficult.

“It’s been a tough two years. We have experienced so many setbacks, first, we had COVID then so many seasonal illnesses, storms, and floods, but we are still trying,” said Dr Bowen.

“Our goal now is to make healthy lunches at school a normal and desirable option and to ensure they continue to be available for affordable prices, to ensure no one goes without lunch if they cannot afford it. In addition, we want to continue to provide a take-home meals service to support our community with nutritious and affordable meals, using local ingredients,” she said.

The Healthy Lunch Kitchen has served up over 8,000 meals for six schools across the shire, avoiding the use of ultra-processed foods that include high levels of sugar, salt, and fat, that offer poor to no nutrition.

“Our kids deserve better than over-processed foods, often packaged in plastics and made in factories a long way away, with lots of nasties. We must believe things can be better – providing nutritious lunches using as much local produce as we can is one way to make it better,” said Dr Bowen.