Practical aid for remote indigenous communities: subsidise freight charges for fresh food, for a start?

Some focus in the SMH today on the high cost of fresh food in remote communities, where in at least one community in WA, Mulan,

so high are the basic living costs that many simply go hungry for a couple of days each week

and this is in a town with a store managed on behalf of the community as a non-profit operation. Freight costs are said to be around triple the stock costs for the store (a problem striking most remote communities, not just indigenous communities). As most people in the community do not have refrigerators, they cannot buy specials in bulk, and so concentrate on cheap foods that will store without refrigeration – sugar, flour, milk powder and bread (high in salt, carbohydrates and empty calories).

Another SMH article from their Medical editor (emphasis added):

It is the first study to investigate the link between poverty and inadequate nutrition among Aborigines in the Northern Territory. While it focused on the one unnamed community of 2000 people, it offers a damning insight into a broader crisis in the nutrition of indigenous Australians.

It found that fruit and vegetable consumption was a third that of the wider Australian community. Cheap but poor-quality food heavy in carbohydrates made up two-thirds of the diet. This put adults at risk of obesity-linked diseases such as cancer, diabetes and heart attack and compromised children’s development, said the study leader, Julie Brimblecombe.
preliminary analysis indicated that a diet that met government nutrition recommendations was not affordable on the budget available, Dr Brimblecombe said.

People are buying cheap calories so that there is food on the table every day. If they bought more expensive calories they would spend several days of every week hungry. Older people are already in the habit of taking less than their share so that the children will be fed.

Even in Mulan, an architect from Victoria who spends three months a year there, who sounds as if he almost gets it, fails to fully understand:

“I don’t know how people live,” said Peter Lockyer, a builder-architect from Victoria who spends three months a year working on building projects in Mulan. “I’ve got the resources to get in my ute and go to Halls Creek to stock up.”

Mr Lockyer also saves money because he has a small vegetable garden. “Mulan could grow its own food but it would require a quantum leap in desire to do it”.

Just desire should be enough, he thinks? What about the set-up cost of the seeds and fertiliser and garden tools? They already spend all their money on food and still go hungry, that’s why they are malnourished. Where is the money to set up a vegetable garden going to come from?

That could be another useful aid project perhaps: consulting with the community about setting up a community garden project where they could grow some vegetables.

Categories: indigenous, media, social justice

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15 replies

  1. Its hard to eat healthily when the only fresh vegetables available at the store are soggy carrots that cost $2.50 each.

  2. It sounds like a really worth-while project would be subsidising the set up costs and education you’d need to get gardens going, rather than subsidising freight costs to fly in foods.
    Flying in food has environmental consequences – around 30% of our greenhouse gas emissions are from growing (on an industrial scale) and transporting foods.
    You could set up a community water recycling scheme to water the gardens, grow fresh fruit and veg, not have to transport it, everyone’s a winner.

  3. I’m privileged to travel around indigenous communities in the top end for my work. The prices for fresh food continue to astound me. In Maningrida this month sweet potatoes came separately wrapped in plastic and were $5.50 each, while there’s a whole aisle of canned meat products (I call it the ‘spam’ aisle) at half the cost. In Oenpelli last year the council attempted a market garden. The first plantings got destroyed by vandals so they had to fence thw whole plot in with barbed wire. Then Howard got rid of the CDEP system that provided the workers and there was nobody to tend the gardens. Oenpelli is in a fabulous spot just outside of Kakadu national park. It has plenty of fresh water and a fertile flood plain that would provide perfect growing conditions. I hope the council finds a way to try planting again this year.
    becshs last blog post..Lessons in insult

  4. Rebekka, the articles referred to road-freight costs mostly (and trucks only coming once a fortnight) but the emissions are not much different in principle.
    I know that there’s been some great work done overseas in setting up community gardens in poor urban areas, I wonder how well such programs might translate to a poor remote community? With no cultural tradition of agriculture the education required would be significantly different, for a start.

  5. While the costs of freight are high, there is very little reason for the ridiculous costs and quality of fresh food in remote communities, save for mismanagement in community stores.
    In the context of setting up community gardens, it is interesting to note that several communities in the Western Desert have moved from a co-operative community owned store to a for profit model with stores being run by Outback Stores. In my limited experience visiting one of these communities, the food has been of far better quality and cheaper since Outback Stores took over operations.

  6. There’s certainly a strong possibility that an enterprise with commercial expertise would be able to negotiate better deals than amateurs, Fmark. If Outback Stores is managing to provide better food more cheaply without falling into the classic “company store” exploitation model, then good for them.

  7. You could try making it legal for isolated indigenous communities to grow and trade dope for profit, an Australian alternative to the “native casinos” that have proven successful in the USA.

  8. These community stores, north of the 26th parallel are charged, at least, $4.00/kg to fly fresh produce and other freight from major cities and regional towns, on the same day. If they are island communities, my understanding is that, barges are not much cheaper per kg and depending on distance from the departing port, can take up to a week to get there. If the communities are inland and freight is ‘roaded’ there, I suspect that the similar prices would apply but only take 2 or 3 days travel, that is if it’s not ‘the wet’, then the only way in is to transport it all in by air.
    Unless these community stores are subsidised, any item is going to cost at least $4.00/kg + mark up, more than they would in Cairns, Darwin or Broome. These towns are in turn far more expensive that Sydney or Melbourne.
    As for community gardens, well? I only know of 1 or 2 in each of Sydney, Melbourne and Perth. How many home food gardens are there in each of your localities? Not many I would think. In my own locality, I know of 4, all tended by seniors. The absolute vast majority of of tended gardens are either grass, ornamentals or pavers. My own attempts at food gardens have been pathetic.
    So, until we grow a portion of our own produce where we live, we can not preach ‘do as I say, not as I do’ to communities who do not, to my knowledge, have those cultural practices.

  9. Surely, this is a joke Joyce, of coarse it is, Deus Ex Macintosh. What with alcohol and other mind altering chemicals, the last thing allot of these communities need is easy access to gunja.

    Anyway, even if these communities could collect as much water as possible, most of the inland ones would be too dry to grow decent crops.

  10. We do have community gardens in my city, tended by volunteers, but we’re in Canada and I don’t know how useful that information is.

  11. This is the best idea. I’ve often read these reports of poor nutrition in remote communities by people who seem to be assuming parents are just not going to the handy local greengrocer!

  12. Ken, you’re right that there aren’t many food gardens around where I live in the inner-city. When I was growing up in an area with lots of Mediterranean immigrants, it was a different story – the shops then didn’t carry enough of the veges they were used to from their home countries, so they grew them themselves. Now of course the local greengrocer carries all sorts of formerly obscure-to-Anglo-Celtics veges, so people in cities who can afford them buy them in shops.
    The problem is that the remote communities can’t afford even a basic quota of fresh vegetables. Of course it shouldn’t be expected that they could learn how to grow veges they have never seen growing anywhere, without training from experienced gardeners, but it is potentially a program that could be useful.
    Programs to help communities in this way never work if they are simply imposed from the top down, of course. It would have to be something that the community decided would be a working proposition.

  13. I suspect Fmark that Outback Stores are subsidising the cost of freight so that overall the food prices are cheaper. Certainly what the big grocery stores did in Alice when I was living there. The cost of groceries wasn’t much different to Sydney, despite the cost of getting it there. Fresh vegies were dearer, and of poorer quality though, and this was in an “urban” area with an airport so there was easy freight options. I suspect that a lot of the “fresh” produce getting to outback communities is very poor stock indeed.

  14. What with alcohol and other mind altering chemicals, the last thing allot of these communities need is easy access to gunja.
    Given the health and social side-effects of existing substance abuse via alcohol and solvents, ganja may be less damaging. (Also a chance for them to exploit our weaknesses for a change.) Yes my tongue was in cheek .. but only slightly.
    As mentioned in post 3, lack of water/soil fertility isn’t always what’s stopping market gardens. In the UK the allotment system is experiencing a resurgence – a hangover from WWII when councils were compelled to provide land for uban people to grow their own veg. Many have been trying to sell them off for housing but the allotment-holders are fighting back. If there is a demand, UK local authorities are still obliged to provide new sites under the Small Holdings and Allotments Act 1908. Perhaps the British system might provide a useful model.


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