Remote communities pay 39 per cent more at the supermarket checkout than city shoppers. Here's why that's a problem.

Residents in remote Aboriginal communities pay the highest average price for food in Australia. Advocates say the next prime minister must act to ensure affordable, healthy food is available for all Australians.

Artwork showing a woman holding a child in front of a background of outback road signs.

While the cost of living in Australia’s capital cities has emerged as the key issue in the federal election campaign, nowhere is the problem more acute than in remote Aboriginal communities. Source: SBS News

The local supermarket is the heart of Wirrimanu, a remote Aboriginal community on the edge of the Great Sandy Desert in Western Australia’s Kimberley region. 

It’s the only shop of its size for 300 kilometres and it's only open limited hours each day, supplying fresh and dry food, as well as clothing, basic furniture and some white goods. 

Plastic curtains hang over the front door to keep dust and flies out, as residents enter to pick up their goods and use the ATM. 

But what’s really surprising about the store are the prices on the shelves. 

When SBS News visited the Wirrimanu Community Store, a 380g jar of Vegemite was selling for $13.25; a plain loaf of white bread for $4.99 and a two litre bottle of orange juice was priced at $7.20.

A 500g bag of San Remo pasta cost $4.40 while a 250g packet of Arnott’s biscuits cost $5.85. 
A man standing in front of a fresh fruit display in a supermarket.
Wirrimanu resident Ronald Mosquito says the community has few other options but to pay the prices. Source: SBS News
The National Indigenous Australians Agency estimates that residents of remote communities pay 39 per cent more for supermarket supplies than consumers in capital cities, and the gap could be widening. 

Wirrimanu resident Ronald Mosquito was browsing the aisles, and told SBS News the community has little option but to pay the prices. 

“If people are desperate and hungry, they will buy whatever they must,” he said.

Ronald has diabetes and said he’s trying to improve his diet, but the availability of fresh, affordable food is a major problem.

“I’m a diabetic, I’m trying to look after myself. Its runs in the families, diabetes is a big problem. But you just need to look after your health.” 

Food insecurity

Across Australia, around 150,000 Indigenous Australians in more than 1,200 remote and very remote communities live with tenuous food security, reliant on community stores and subject to insecure supply routes and seasonal disruption. 

Jars of Vegemite on shelf.
The National Indigenous Australians Agency estimates that residents of remote communities pay 39 per cent more for supermarket supplies than consumers in capital cities. Source: SBS News
The sheer isolation of remote communities means bringing food in from warehouses in large population centres is a monumental logistical task. 

The shortage of affordable, healthy food directly contributes to disproportionately high rates of preventable disease, including Type 2 diabetes, kidney disease, heart disease, cancer and mental health problems. 

Like many others in Wirrimanu, Mr Mosquito is a diabetic and just returned to community after undergoing hospital treatment in Perth. 
But while some community stores have been exposed taking advantage of isolated communities, price gouging is not considered a widespread problem. 

Like many other community stores, the Wirrimanu Community Store is owned and managed by the community, so prices are kept as low as possible, especially on fruit and vegetables.

“The most important thing is lowering the cost of food. Rather than viewing it as a commercial enterprise, we view it as a service, a health service,” Wirrimanu Aboriginal Corporation Warren Bretag says. 

But the cost of transport, lack of bulk purchasing power and high operating costs means residents of remote communities pay a premium for everyday items. 

Trucks deliver dry goods to Wirrimanu from Darwin while fruit and vegetables are transported from Perth via Halls Creek, along the Tanami Highway. 
Poster of the Wirrimanu Community Store.
The Wirrimanu Community Store is owned and operated by the community. Prices are kept as low as possible, especially on fruit and vegetables. Source: SBS News
The high price of essential items extends outside to the community’s petrol pump, where a litre of unleaded fuel sold for $2.80. 

“We attempt to buy food at the lowest cost that we possibly can. It would be wonderful if freight wasn't so expensive, but it is expensive because we're a very remote community,” Mr Bretag says. 

“I think we need to look at remote communities and apply some sort of area allowance to truly remote communities so that people have more money in their pocket to buy food.” 

Health impacts

In early 2020, food security and affordability in remote Aboriginal communities made headlines when reports emerged of an iceberg lettuce selling for $7.89 and a jar of coffee for $55. 

In response, Federal Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt initiated a parliamentary inquiry, the third inquiry of its kind into food security and affordability in remote Indigenous communities since 2009. 
Box of cereal selling for $11.99 on a shelf.
Health advocates say the next federal government needs to invest to ensure remote communities have access to nutritious food, and prevent Aboriginal lives being cut short by preventable disease. Source: SBS News
The inquiry didn’t recommend freight subsidies, as it said there was no guarantee trucking companies would pass the benefits on to communities. 

But the Federal government rejected the inquiry’s key recommendation, that the government should direct the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) to do an enhanced market study into food and grocery prices in remote community stores. 

“The Committee believes that the ACCC, as Australia’s consumer watchdog, has the resources and can bring in the additional external expertise to address these issues in a holistic and independent manner,” the report said. 

In a statement provided to SBS News, Mr Wyatt said the government had allocated $8 million in infrastructure grants in the latest federal budget to improve food security in 43 Aboriginal communities across Australia. 
Map showing Wirrimanu in WA
Source: SBS News
While a spokesperson for the Australian Labor Party said an Albanese Labor Government would work with communities to address food shortages, both major parties promised upgrades to the Kimberley region’s Tanami road. 

Aboriginal health advocates say the next government needs to take action, and prevent the chronic health issues impacting remote communities. 

“We end up building more hospitals for acute care, because we end up with more people in acute care, because we've never provided the everyday necessities that every person needs,” Aboriginal Health Council of WA CEO Vicki O’Donnell said. 

“At the end of the day, whichever government gets in, there's not a lot in either campaigns at the moment to make a difference to an Aboriginal person's life.”

5 min read
Published 17 May 2022 at 5:51am
By Aaron Fernandes, Kearyn Cox
Source: SBS News