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Walgett community unites to tackle pandemic-related food shortages

Introduction by Croakey: Minister Ken Wyatt today hosted a round table meeting with the Northern Territory Chief Minister, Michael Gunner, and representatives from the Arnhem Land Progress Association (ALPA), Islanders Board of Industry and Service (IBIS), Outback Stores, Coles, Woolworths and Metcash, following concerns about grocery shortages in remote Indigenous communities.

In a related statement, the Minister said he was aware of some community stores having stock issues. The National Indigenous Australians Agency (NIAA) had established a dedicated Food Security Working Group that was closely monitoring specific issues for regional and remote Australia, he said.

Meanwhile, people in the remote NSW town of Walgett are going hungry because of empty supermarket shelves, and food insecurity is exacerbating concerns around the novel coronavirus, report Vanessa Hickey and Wendy Spencer from the Dharriwaa Elders Group, and Dr Jacqui Webster from The George Institute for Global Health at the University of New South Wales.


Vanessa Hickey, Wendy Spencer and Jacqui Webster write:

Experts around the world have been highlighting the weaknesses of the current food system in the context of COVID-19 and arguing that the crisis caused by the pandemic provides an opportunity to re-think the way we produce, distribute and consume food.

The main question is “what can we do in the context of the crisis to get the food system in better shape to improve the consumption of nutritious foods for all, especially the most vulnerable?”

Meanwhile here in Australia, city panic buying has highlighted the current food system inequities, plunging remote areas into food shortages, with reports of residents going hungry.

“Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life”. (World Food Summit, 1996)

It was fears about food security at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic that led many Australians to stockpile basic food supplies. Whilst this situation has merely been inconvenient for many people, the knock-on effects for remote areas are much worse.

Efforts to maintain stock on city supermarkets shelves in response to increased demands is dramatically reducing supplies available for remote areas. Some families in remote communities are now suffering from food insecurity, including going hungry on consecutive days.

Empty shelves

The impact of this has been felt starkly in the small remote town of Walgett. At the junction of the Namoi and Barwon Rivers in north west NSW, this town only has a small temporary IGA grocery store, set up with NSW Government funds after a fire in June 2019 completely destroyed the main town store.

Dharriwaa Elders Group (DEG) provides a platform and support to Aboriginal Elders in Walgett. Since the pandemic began, they have been reporting concerns regarding IGA stock shortages.

They’ve heard that Coles and Woolworths receive first access to supplies and Metcash, which provides IGA, gets what is left. Hence Walgett IGA reported receiving just 35 percent of stock ordered last week and only 20 percent the previous week.

Staff member Vanessa Hickey (one of the co-authors of this article) has been taking photos of the shelves each day, for the record. It varies week by week, but there are severe shortages, meaning people aren’t getting what they need.

Vanessa was greatly disturbed to hear that three young families she’d visited one morning last week reported running short of food since their kids had been at home during COVID-19. One young mother explained that if she notices she’s out of bread, milk, butter when she starts preparing the evening meal – even if she can get a ride into town before the IGA closes – the store is usually out of stock.

A major concern is that some families usually rely on the meals provided by the school canteen and breakfast programs; now that the children are at home, they are running short of food. The ongoing food and grocery shortages at the Walgett IGA are exacerbating this food insecurity.

Inequities abound

Walgett’s Aboriginal community makes up approximately 70 percent of the town’s population. Aboriginal people in Australia suffer disproportionately from chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and respiratory problems. According to the World Health Organization, people with these pre-existing conditions seem to be more susceptible to becoming severely ill if they contract the COVID-19 virus.

Stock shortages mean that residents have to leave their homes amid COVID-19 concerns to shop more frequently as products become available.

So, the stock inequity situation is increasing the risk of contracting the virus for the already vulnerable community, particularly if they need to travel to other towns to obtain essential supplies.

Said Christine Corby (OAM), Chief Executive Officer, Walgett Aboriginal Medical Service (WAMS):

Many residents cannot purchase food when deliveries (such as they are) arrive in town and do not have a private car to shop outside of Walgett.

A large proportion of the community have complex health issues.

We know that other towns must be experiencing the same issue. It is a human rights and equity issue.”

Dharriwaa Elders Group – working with Walgett Aboriginal Medical Service, key Walgett Aboriginal organisations, and advisors from UNSW including the Global Water Institute, The George Institute for Global Health and NSW Health Aboriginal Environmental Health – has formed the Walgett Food and Water for Life Working Group.

This group is developing a program to improve access to food and safe drinking water for the Walgett Aboriginal community – a community where there are already high levels of chronic disease and disadvantage. This includes work to develop the WAMS Community Garden and establish drinking water kiosks for schools.

WAMS Community Garden visit by Jacqui Webster (The George Institute), Ricco Lane (Walgett Aboriginal Medical Service) and Wendy Spencer (Dharriwaa Elders Group / Yuwaya Ngarra-li)

Responding to a food emergency

But the current priority is to develop an urgent response to the food shortages in Walgett. This means exploring every possible avenue to secure emergency food supplies to support the households most in need during the COVID-19 emergency.

Initiatives being considered include delivery of emergency fruit and vegetable boxes and/or frozen meals as well as community cooking programs to prepare meals for vulnerable community members.

While DEG has funds to help Elders in this regard, it currently does not have the resources to feed other community members and is trying to identify possible sources of funds for this purpose.

Government and the food industry are promoting a range of valuable food-related welfare schemes to support individuals and communities through the current crisis. However, most of these don’t extend to remote communities so far.

Food re-distributions schemes such as SecondBite don’t have the capacity to deliver as far as Walgett and rely on local agencies being able to collect for warehouses. Other schemes rely on individual rather than community level action, but it is not always clear that help is getting to the people who need it most.

According to the Local Emergency Operations Controller, “to ensure a co-ordinated response across the state, all persons requiring COVID-19 related welfare assistance should contact the National COVID-19 Hotline”.

But, it is not clear what is on offer, or how that may be delivered locally, so many local residents are unlikely to do this without support.

Christine Corby added:

It is unbelievable that our rural towns are once again penalised due to location. Water last year. Infectious disease this year. Such a recipe will see some people in distress, anxious, feeling vulnerable, struggling to sustain a healthy and happy family.

WAMS have been operating for 34 years (circa June 1986) and can only hope an element of dignity, hope and food is offered to people living in our western towns.”

When the Walgett IGA burnt down last year and when our community faced relying on low quality bore water with high levels of sodium after local rivers dried up, it became clear that the emergency food and water needs of remote communities have not been “war-gamed.” This is starkly apparent again now.

The Walgett Food and Water for Life project goal – to get the local food system in better shape to support the community, by expanding capacity for growing, cooking and distributing food locally – has never been more relevant.

Previously at Croakey

2019: New report documents a community-led response to a health crisis in Walgett, NSW

2018: Dharriwaa Elders Group launches a vision for young people in Walgett