As a new research paper highlights the financial vulnerability faced by some Indigenous Australians amid COVID-19, food security in one remote community has become a more pressing issue.
Sausages are sizzling and aromatic spices are toasting in an oversized pot at the community hall kitchen in Wilcannia.
It’s late afternoon in the remote New South Wales town on the bank of the Darling River and Monica Kerwin and her crew of young, diligent volunteers are hard at work cooking dinner for the community’s most vulnerable.
“People can’t wait for this time of the day. They’re so grateful. It’s instrumental for the elders,” 15-year-old volunteer Katelyn Whyman told SBS News.
When the fragrant sausage and vegetable curry is ready, the volunteers scoop huge piles of it into containers. Monica puts on her glasses and looks at her list – it contains the names of people receiving meals and where they live – and begins organising the meals into bags.
All up, there are more than 50 meals to be delivered across the community of about 750 people, most of whom are Barkindji people.
“Alright ladies, we’re off,” Monica says as she carries off boxloads of food.
The Meals on Wheels service, which began five weeks ago and delivers meals three times a week, is supported by Maari Ma Health, an Aboriginal community-controlled organisation that serves those living in the far west region of NSW.
It was set up due to COVID-19 not only to provide a nutritious meal to the community’s most vulnerable but also to alleviate some of the pressure on families who have accessibility and affordability issues.
“If you have a lot of people under one roof because of our overcrowding problem, we can take the burden off by cooking an additional meal. It also takes the economic pressure off a bit – there are affordability issues here,” Monica said.
For decades, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities across Australia have raised concerns about food security issues. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the fore such longstanding concerns, underscoring the need for reform.
“Limited housing stock is as apparent as food security,” said James Ward, director of the Poche Centre for Indigenous Health and professor at the school of public health at the University of Queensland.
“Many people are worried about food supplies in remote communities, especially with winter coming. We need to make sure food security is holistic.”
Australian Bureau of Statistics data from 2012-13 found one in five Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were living in a household where someone went without food when the household ran out, compared with 3.7 per cent in the non-Indigenous population.
A 2016 study found food products in some remote Indigenous communities were priced up to 68 per cent higher than in major city supermarkets.
And a policy paper released this week by The Centre for Social Impact and First Nations Foundation found such issues have persisted - and were only set to become more critical in the wake of COVID-19.
“People living in remote communities are already paying much higher prices for basic personal and household items,” the report read.
“Recent events seen through panic buying of basics such as toilet paper, flour and hand sanitiser in metropolitan areas will impact remote communities through sheer demand."
"The same stimulus payment will buy less in remote communities compared to metropolitan areas."
The paper, which outlines ways to ensure people are kept financially safe over the coming months, found that of those surveyed, only one in ten were classified as financially secure. Half said they did not have any money put away.
COVID-19 is only further impacting “what we already knew about financial vulnerability among Indigenous people,” the report read.
“In a time where jobs are being lost or hours significantly cut back, we are seeing this impact on the community," First Nations Foundation chief executive Phil Usher said. "Even having enough funds to bridge the gap to receive the government stimulus package is a challenge.”
Last month, 13 Northern Territory Indigenous groups called for a “guarantee of affordable goods for remote communities” as they faced food shortages due to the pandemic.
In Wilcannia, there is just one takeaway shop and one small grocer which charges significantly more for food than supermarkets in the nearest town of Broken Hill, two hours away.
Prior to the pandemic, locals largely relied on trips to Broken Hill to obtain groceries. But with the threat of the virus and high rates of chronic illness in the community - which has left many highly vulnerable - people have been hesitant to travel.
“Out here you see high rates of chronic disease,” said Dr Stephen Gaggin, a GP based in Wilcannia.
“There are people here who’ve had a stroke before 30 and who have heart disease in their 20s.”
He said poor nutrition was not a result of the community's choices.
“It’s not that people do not like nutritious food. Some of it is about affordability and accessibility. We need to get good food on the table.”
It’s 5.30pm and Monica is driving across Wilcannia to deliver dinner. A second carload of food and volunteers is travelling to another part of town.
As she pulls up to people’s homes, she yells out, “dinner’s here” and from one house after another, people slowly emerge with a grin on their faces.
The community relishes in the opportunity to have some form of human interaction after weeks in lockdown. Monica has a quick chat with each person - ensuring social distancing is adhered to - before she’s on her way again.
One of the greatest challenges of her work, she says, is the lack of manpower. The service needs more volunteers and another chef to make meals that specifically cater to diabetics in the community.
But despite the struggles, Monica is determined that even after the pandemic, hot meals will still be delivered to those who need them in Wilcannia.
“We’re not going to stop,” she said. “I really hope this becomes a permanent service.”
Sophie Cousins is a freelance journalist usually based in South Asia. Her travel to Wilcannia was funded by the National Geographic Society.
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