School children are being bombarded by messages about unhealthy eating, a new study has revealed.

A three-year study by University of Auckland researchers has, for the first time, mapped the nation’s food environments and policies.

The study analysed food composition, labelling, marketing and prices, as well as food in schools and retail outlets.

It found only 40 per cent of schools had a food policy, but even those that did were “weak and not comprehensive”.

Over 90 per cent of schools used unhealthy food for fundraising and 42 per cent sold sugary drinks, the study found.

The survey found within 500m of the school gate, there were an average of 2.4 takeaway or convenience stores, and nine advertisements for unhealthy foods.

Research leader Professor Boyd Swinburn said people chose their diets from the food environments around them.

“When these are dominated by unhealthy foods and drinks, it is no surprise that our overall diets are unhealthy and our obesity rates are so high.”

He said food marketing to children was heavily dominated by unhealthy foods across all forms of media and used techniques to engage children such as premium offers and cartoon characters.

“The food in schools was surprisingly unhealthy given all the publicity about rising childhood obesity,” Boyd said.

Lower socio-economic neighbourhoods had about three times as many takeaway and fast food outlets, more advertisements for unhealthy foods around schools and more shelf space devoted to unhealthy foods in supermarkets.

“You don’t have to look far to see why we have such big health disparities in the rates of obesity, diabetes, dental caries and even mental health problems,” said Swinburn.

“Improving food environments through government and food industry actions would go a long way to breaking the cycles of poverty and poor health.”

The study follows research from the University of Otago that found unhealthy food dominated sporting venues in New Zealand.

That research found two thirds of food sold at netball and rugby venues was considered unhealthy.

Māori public health organisation Hāpai Te Hauora had been working with community groups to implement healthy nutrition policies.

Chief executive Lance Norman said the focus was on community-led initiatives.

“In our experience these provide the greatest engagement, and the most sustainable change. Healthy nutrition policies are a great place to start, as long as they’re implemented appropriately and supported to be sustainable.”

He said there needed to be financial and educational support behind the policies.

“There’s no point just riding in and telling communities they’re doing things wrong and then putting the burden of change on them alone.”

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