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Food insecurity in uncertain times: ways forward post-pandemic

Wide-ranging systemic and structural changes are needed to ensure food and economic security for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, according to University of Queensland academics, Professor Bronwyn Fredericks and Dr Abraham Bradfield.

Their essay below is from the latest edition of Griffith Review, which has as its theme ‘Remaking the balance’, and it is cross-posted here with permission.


Wistfully she muses on / Something bartered, something gone / Songs of old

remembered days / The walkabout, the old free ways / Blessed with everything

she prized / Trained and safe and civilized / Much she has that they have not /

But is hers the happier lot? / Lonely in her paradise / Cookalingee sits and cries

‘Cookalingee’, Oodgeroo Noonuccal (1981)

Bronwyn Fredericks and Abraham Bradfield write:

‘Cookalingee’, by Quandamooka poet Oodgeroo Noonuccal, tells the story of fragmenting relationships within colonial frontiers. Working as a kitchenhand, Cookalingee, an Aboriginal woman, finds herself having to leave behind the ‘old free ways’ in hope of attaining the so-called ‘safety’ and ‘civility’ that white society has ‘trained’ and ‘blessed’ upon her. It portrays a time when Aboriginal peoples were increasingly beholden to white resources and rations because of colonial dispossession and threats of violence. Cookalingee appears to adopt the ‘white man’s way’ in order to survive, but it comes at a cost. Entering the realm of the colonisers, Cookalingee cries – she is not only removed from kin, but also knows that in the eyes of the colonisers, she will remain something ‘other’.

To escape a fate similar to Cookalingee’s, Indigenous Australians must have greater input and control over the policies that impact and govern their lives. COVID-19 has exposed a pre-existing and ongoing concern regarding Indigenous peoples’ access to affordable and healthy foods. But food insecurity is just one aspect of a wider narrative about Indigenous voice and Australia’s failure to include Indigenous perspectives in governing and policy-making processes. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples must be empowered with the means, finance and resources necessary to deliver the best outcomes for their communities.

Access to affordable healthy food is a fundamental right recognised under the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Amid concerns about Australia’s capacity to feed itself during COVID-19, the government emphasised the country’s position as one of the world’s top nations in terms of food security. This is based on indexes measuring undernourishment, afford- ability and availability. While it may be the case for the national average, analysing data pertaining to Indigenous Australians separately shows that the story of Australia’s food wealth is far from secure.

In early 2020, the Queensland Aboriginal and Islander Health Council stated that approximately one third of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have faced food insecurity at some point in their lives, while 20 per cent had run out of food in the previous twelve months. Access to affordable, nutritious and fresh produce is particularly difficult for those who live in remote Australia – so it’s not surprising that only 8 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples meet the recommended daily vegetable intake, and only 54 per cent eat the recommended daily fruit intake. Poor nutrition coupled with excessive consumption of discretionary foods high in sugar, fat and salt contributes to health complications. This often leads to chronic illnesses such as type 2 diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease and kidney disease, among others.

Socioeconomic factors and the affordability of fresh food significantly impact what Indigenous peoples consume and what they are able to access. Dr Megan Ferguson and her colleagues conducted a study comparing the price of food baskets in urban supermarkets in Darwin and Adelaide and remote stores in the Northern Territory and South Australia, finding that products from remote locations cost an average of 60 per cent more. In addition to this, Indigenous peoples earn an average weekly income of $250 less than non-Indigenous Australians. This means that in remote Australia – where employment opportunities are scarce and reliance on welfare a necessity – people must stretch their income just to feed themselves and their family. Purchasing cheaper and often unhealthy processed foods is one way to achieve this.

In 2008, one of the recommended targets of the Close the Gap initiative was to ensure that 90 per cent of Indigenous families could access a healthy food basket using less than a quarter of their income by 2018. Over a decade later, this has not been achieved, and problems relating to food affordability and access continue. In some cases, Indigenous peoples are paying up to 80 per cent of their entire income on food alone. Despite the government’s ongoing concerns about food insecurity, price differences between remote and urban stores remain.

Geography and the logistics of supply and transportation contribute to high prices in remote areas – but wider socioeconomic determinants, governmental policies, infrastructure, profiteering, and a systemic failure to listen and respond to the needs of Aboriginal communities all impede Aboriginal communities’ capacity to access healthy and affordable foods. In settings such as Australia, Indigenous peoples’ dispossession from country, changes to diet, disconnection from traditional food practices, environmental harm, housing and overcrowding, and numerous other factors arising from colonisation also contribute to food insecurity.

Underlying issues remain unaddressed

In the wake of the pandemic, we find ourselves in a situation where Indigenous health – which is often compromised by pre-existing (and preventable) health conditions – is placed at greater risk because the underlying issues informing food insecurity and wider socioeconomic disparities haven’t been addressed. Pat Turner, CEO of the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO), observes this in relation to Outback Stores, a government-owned company servicing thirty- nine food and general stores across remote Northern Territory, Western Australia and South Australia. In an interview for the ABC, Turner spoke of the government’s delayed and reactive response to food security that in some cases contributed to food shortages during the early days of the pandemic:

Given the fact that we have had Outback Stores for a long time and so on, I’m just really disappointed that the pre-planning wasn’t done to ensure ready access to healthy and affordable food…

Our people need access to fresh produce and they need, now more than ever, healthy food to keep their immunity system up.”

While COVID-19 took many by surprise, researchers and communities have been exposing food insecurity for many years. Government responses have lacked the foresight and structural framework needed to ensure that Indigenous peoples have an accessible, affordable and healthy food supply. The federal government is only now conducting an inquiry into food pricing and food security in remote Indigenous communities, as this topic has attracted heightened public exposure due to the pandemic. The inquiry is both overdue and timely, as the strategies employed to help curb the virus’s spread have on many occasions further inflamed and threatened food security and Indigenous peoples’ health.

The restrictions imposed as a result of COVID-19 have had numerous repercussions for often underfunded and under-resourced services in remote and discrete communities. Greater pressure and financial strain has been placed on service delivery – particularly in healthcare, food provision and education – while available resources have had to be stretched to meet increasing demands and needs.

Major disruptions to essential services such as schools have also emerged as a result of community lockdown. School closures in some areas have been inconvenient for many parents and educators; but for the majority of non-Indigenous Australians, it’s safe to say that these closures have probably not affected their ability to feed their families. For Indigenous peoples, school closures potentially deprive the access of students to the nutritional food programs some schools offer. Inability to access these programs combined with the unaffordability of food means that some have no option but to purchase cheaper, less healthy options or go without food altogether to ensure their money goes further. With limited financial capital and living outside their home communities, access to food has also been a major source of anxiety for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander university students. But the challenges associated with curbing the spread of COVID-19 have forced state and federal governments to reassess many of their policies in relation to income support, caring for community members, employment and industrial relations. Ironically, in some cases, Aboriginal health and access to food have improved because certain pre-Covid policies and programs have been suspended. This potentially points to how food security policies and practices may be reformed to achieve better outcomes for Indigenous Australians in a post-pandemic setting.

For example, according to anthropologist Professor Jon Altman, deferring the mutual obligations associated with the Community Development Program (CDP) means that putative penalties resulting in reduced or withheld welfare have ceased this year. Alongside temporary increases in welfare payments, this has enabled some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to re-engage with country and customary food practices, contributing to greater food security, nutrition and transmission of cultural knowledge.

The punitive penalties of the CDP and the inability of many Indigenous peoples to meet its requirements directly affect food security. Many researchers and community members have expressed how such measures further enshrine poverty by depriving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of income for food and essential items. Post-lockdown, it’s time to rethink welfare and government funding arrangements and frame them as a form of economic stimulus and investment in Indigenous healthcare and wellbeing. NACCHO observes that increased welfare has been crucial to improving the food security and health of those who are unemployed, particularly in remote communities. They estimate that these measures will increase the total income flowing to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in very remote areas by more than a quarter.

Welfare, financial assistance and investment in Indigenous-run initiatives can also provide significant returns by alleviating pressures placed on other industries and services, such as healthcare. Like many strategies that aim to address social disadvantage, investment in preventative health – including food security – is fiscally and morally responsible.

Restrictions on movements in urban centres have resulted in many Indigenous peoples returning home to remote communities. Although this has increased pressure on already under-resourced and overcrowded communities, some have noted the positive aspects of Aboriginal peoples being on country during lockdown. For many Indigenous peoples, being on country is a form of rejuvenation and an aspect of health and wellbeing. It is a means of re-engaging with place and building relationships. At a time when our everyday lives have been radically altered because of the pandemic, returning home has given many an opportunity to re-centre themselves culturally and spiritually. In a piece for The Conversation, Professor Claire Smith and her colleagues quote the chair of the Sunrise Health Service Aboriginal Corporation in Barunga, Northern Territory, observing that ‘people are looking more healthy’ as a result of sourcing and consuming traditional foods. The increased consumption of traditional foods, as well as the physical activity of gathering it, has provided opportunities to reconnect to country and kin, which brings physical, mental and cultural benefits.

However, in some cases, restrictions on movements and community lockdowns have prevented Indigenous peoples from returning to remote communities. The inability to access traditional foods has cut many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples off from a food source that may have been consumed regularly, or that was used to supplement unaffordable foods and groceries. This reiterates the necessity of incorporating traditional food practices – including sourcing, consumption and potential sale – in policies and strategies that aim to ensure food and economic security. Associate Professor Julie Brimblecombe and her colleagues note the necessity of incorporating traditional food systems within all frameworks that address food security and nutrition in Aboriginal communities.

The pandemic has also emphasised the necessity of helping those in need through calls for greater philanthropic support. NACCHO and others have noted that in many cases, the crisis has strengthened relationships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the wider community. However, although the partnerships developed through philanthropic endeavours are welcome and necessary, they must not be reduced to one-off charitable payouts. Food security depends on building the necessary resources, frameworks and infrastructure to continue partnerships well into the future. Food insecurity existed before COVID-19, and still exists today. It is essential that the current food crisis is recognised as arising from systemic failures that have come under the spotlight as a result of COVID-19 rather than being directly caused by it.

The report of the 2017 Queensland Productivity Commission Inquiry into service delivery in remote and discrete communities states that Indigenous communities and their representative bodies must lead negotiations with governments and service providers, setting the terms and expectations of agreed-upon outcomes. Large companies such as Coles and Woolworths, mining firms, and government and non-government organisations alike have provided resources and assistance to many communities during the pandemic. But local community members and Indigenous-run services have primarily been the most effective at identifying and responding to their community’s needs.

In ‘Reconciliation Week’, an article for The Conversation in May 2020, we noted, as have others, how Indigenous communities took the initiative long before government intervention, locking down and closing access roads while addressing service provision. Although many community members, leaders and health professionals saw the decision to lock down as necessary, it did pose additional consequences that further affected people’s access to affordable food. Indigenous communities are often forced to triage disadvantage in order to compromise and settle for the lesser of multiple evils. In this case, the risk posed to the community due to COVID-19, particularly for Elders, was too great, meaning that access to cheaper food in more populated urban centres had to be cut off. Many communities needed to enforce lockdown measures because some community members broke social distancing to travel to cities, towns and regional centres in search of cheaper food.

Those who were able to travel to populated areas with large supermarkets faced the additional barrier of purchase limits. COVID-19 has further emphasised a disconnect between remote communities and regional/urban centres. Confronted with the prospect of quarantining at home and restricted movement, many people in urban and regional areas began to hoard food, which significantly contributed to food shortages and supply-chain disruptions. In response, supermarkets imposed buying limits. While this is an effective strategy for those who live close to a supermarket, it prevented people from remote communities – many of whom travel hundreds of kilometres to the nearest chain supermarket – from stockpiling supplies to cover several weeks or months.

Dependence on what is often the only food store in a regional community is also affected by environmental and circumstantial factors, and Covid can exacerbate these. Food security in the community of Walgett in NSW, for example, was significantly threatened when the local IGA burnt down in 2019. Although a smaller store has since been built, it only received 26 per cent of ordered stock during the pandemic. This suggests a significant rupture in the supply chain and further highlights the vulnerabilities attached to having just one food source. In addition, a drought caused increased salt to leach into Walgett’s water supply, making it undrinkable. Community members were thus forced to rely on bottled water that had to be purchased and was in limited supply because of Covid panic buying. In other areas, flooding and environmental factors often block roads and hamper supply deliveries.

Climate, inferior infrastructure, lack of healthy water supply, inadequate sanitation services and unreliable power also affects a community’s ability to adequately store, refrigerate and prepare food in a safe manner. Only 6 per cent of houses in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in Queensland have the recommended infrastructure for safe food storage and preparation. An inability to safely stockpile food and resources during lockdowns is of particular concern. Locality, housing concerns such as overcrowding and infrastructure, access to healthcare and other services, and food security have all increased COVID-19 risks, further intensifying an already dangerous and life-threatening situation. The service providers appointed to respond to issues such as housing, food and employment are primarily controlled and overseen by non-Indigenous officials and are situated within white governing structures.

Systemic failings

In Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s poem, Cookalingee occupies a space that exists on the borders of two worlds: that of the white settler and that of her own Aboriginal culture. Throughout the poem, Noonuccal presents the complexities of colonisation, assimilation and Indigenous sovereignty. Cookalingee’s adoption of the ‘white man’s way’ means that she has had to compromise on aspects of her own cultural identity, described as ‘something bartered, something gone’. Having entered the so-called ‘paradise’ of the white world, Cookalingee hopes to share in all its bounties, but instead remains alienated.

COVID-19 has highlighted numerous systemic failings and social disadvantages that have contributed to ineffective service provision and food insecurity for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Achieving food security by ensuring equitable and affordable access is undoubtedly a key issue that has faced greater pressures as a result of COVID-19. But concerns over access to healthy and affordable food and the prevalence of food insecurity are nothing new. Discussed by Indigenous commentators, experts and community members in copious reports, investigations, news articles, social media posts and academic works, food insecurity is part of an ongoing discourse relating to voice, representation and Indigenous peoples’ exclusion from the matters that impact their lives, families and communities.

Despite the challenges of COVID-19, we must continue to demand that governments are responsive and accountable to Indigenous peoples. The ongoing push to enact the Uluru Statement from the Heart and establish an Indigenous Voice to Parliament demonstrates the unswaying and uncompromising call for Indigenous representation and participation in the policies that affect their lives. For better or worse, many Indigenous peoples have accepted that they must work within existing governing structures in order to create real systemic change. Their voices are key to developing and implementing responsive and culturally appropriate policies that may help address numerous areas of disadvantage, including food insecurity.

Indigenous peoples will never forget the ‘songs of old remembered days’, which will continue to inform their past, present and future. But Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ inclusion must not be tainted by the assimilationist condition that they barter away their culture, sovereignty and eternal place as Australia’s First Peoples. Ultimately, through constitutional reforms, Indigenous peoples can have their voices acknowledged and work with governments to achieve systemic and structural change. Enshrining Indigenous voices within decision and policy-making practices will create new opportunities and possibilities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non-Indigenous peoples and will ultimately contribute to wider reconciliation.

Professor Bronwyn Fredericks is the Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Engagement) at The University of Queensland

Dr Abraham Bradfield is an early career researcher and a research assistant with the Office of the Pro-Vice Chancellor (Indigenous Engagement) at The University of Queensland.

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