McDonald’s push into regional Australia angers health experts amid warnings of ‘food deserts’

The fast food giant’s expansion may be controversial in towns that have battled to keep the company out of their backyards

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The expansion of McDonald’s over the next two years will see a big push into regional Australia, which experts say bodes well for local economies but not their population’s health.

Of 100 new McDonald’s Australia restaurants set to open in the next two years, about a third will be opening in regional and remote areas.

Cameron Newlands, a senior director of the restaurant group, said growth in population as well as investment from government and business in regional areas was driving where they would open.

“Anywhere north of 5,000 [people] is something we’d consider,” Newlands said. “But other characteristics like traffic flow, tourism and growth potential are just as important.”

But the move could be controversial in towns that have battled to keep the fast food giant out of their backyards. Tecoma, on the edge of Melbourne, fought unsuccessfully to stop a McDonald’s development and Tamworth council faced controversy when it approved its fourth Mcdonald’s outlet in a town that suffers high rates of obesity.

Megan Belot, the president of the Rural Doctors Association of Australia, said the expansion was not a positive outcome for rural patients who already have an increased risk of obesity.

“It’s nice to think that there’s going to be more jobs and opportunities for our younger people to work in a place like McDonald’s, but realistically we don’t need fast food in our smaller rural communities,” Belot said.

She believes the focus for regional communities should be on better access to more fresh food and vegetables and meat. “Because half the time that actually can be quite a struggle, especially for remote communities.”

Belot said the move could create “food deserts”, where fast food restaurants are closer than access to fresh fruit and vegetables.

Dr Kim Houghton, the chief economist at the Regional Australia Institute, said McDonald’s may be increasingly drawn to the regions because of the growth that came during the Covid pandemic.

“Regions really weren’t as affected by those capital city lockdowns in 2020 and bounced back much faster than the city,” Houghton said. “And couple that with a very good agricultural season on the east coast and there’s a lot of optimism in our inland places. I think that would play well into the business planning for McDonald’s expansion.”

Serrin Dewar moved last year from Melbourne to Roma, a town considered the gateway to outback Queensland, to become the licensee for McDonald’s in Roma.

Dewar said the need to be open to moving to a regional, rural or remote location to become a McDonald’s licensee was part of her reason for applying.

“You really have to want to reconnect and commit to regional,” Dewar said.

Despite being a quick service brand, Dewar said she and her fiance try and incorporate the country ethos and a local flavour in their service.

“That is 100% the most rewarding part of it, that all of these kids, whether they stay on with us for life or it’s just a stepping stone, they’ve got amazing access to training, they make friends, it looks great on their CV if they want to use it as a stepping stone before heading off to the big smoke,” Dewar said.

Newlands said the average McDonald’s restaurant fills about 120 fulltime, part-time and casual jobs in each town so is “really substantial in terms of employment opportunity across different roles from kitchen, service and management roles”.

Erica Spry is a Bardi Jawi traditional owner, Aboriginal research officer for the Kimberley Aboriginal Medical Services and research fellow with the rural clinical school of the University of Western Australia.

Spry said she was very concerned about the effect of fast food restaurants such as McDonald’s on the Indigenous population, who are seeing increasing rates of diabetes across multiple generations.

Research by Spry and Julia Marley, professor of health research at the rural clinical school of the University of Western Australia, shows Indigenous populations in rural and remote populations can have three times the average rate of diabetes as the general population.

They also generally develop type 2 diabetes 20 years earlier than non-Indigenous Australians.

Spry said before fast food restaurants came to the Kimberley, people cooked more meals but now “everyone loves Maccas here because that’s just how it is”.

She said even though the brand had made changes such as adding options like substituting fries with sliced apples, “it’s still a worry” with high sugar items such as soft serve ice cream available for under $2.

“Their marketing is their selling tool and people give in,” Spry said.

Marley said remote communities “need access to cheap fresh food … not junk food” if they are to help prevent high incidences of diabetes and obesity.

Marley said remote areas like the Kimberleys often experience food deserts as trucks only come in once a week or once a fortnight. And, in the dry season, tourists buy up fresh stock in supermarkets.

She said picking up prepared food was often the easier option not only because it was cheaper but because of a other factors that act as drivers of obesity.

“It could be that your cooker doesn’t work, you don’t have a working fridge or freezer, the electricity gets cut off,” Marley said. “You’ve got 10 people living in a three-bedroom house and you’ve got people visiting so they can end up eating the food you’ve got.”

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