There are over a thousand remote communities in Australia, many with miniscule populations, and they are home to 25 per cent of Indigenous Australians.
According to the Menzies School of Health Research, fresh produce in these communities costs, on average, 30 per cent more than in urban areas.
Dr. Brimblecombe, a senior research fellow there, says that nutrition is key to closing the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous life expectancy.
"Fruit and vegetables become a luxury."
She cites the increasing body of research that connects a low intake of fruit and vegetables and a high intake of soft drinks to poor health, in particular obesity, Type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.
In remote communities, on average, 20 per cent of inhabitants have Type 2 diabetes and 30 per cent have chronic kidney disease.
“This is a real concern. The key driver for diet in remote communities certainly relates to food affordability,” said Dr. Brimblecombe. “Some of the poorest Australians live in remote communities, so when people have only got a little bit of money then fruit and vegetables become a luxury”.
“We need to close the gap in the cost of food between remote communities and urban centres,” she said.
A possible solution?
The community from Elcho Island in North East Arnhem land is the birthplace of a cooperative that is working towards improving the health and lives of indigenous peoples across the region.
Galiwinku, the community’s name, has two thousand inhabitants, and no major industry. The unemployment rate hovers around 85 per cent, according to Alastair King, the CEO for the Arnhem Land Progress Aboriginal Corporation (ALPA).
"We don’t have the volumes to get the prices Woolworths and Coles get”.
ALPA was established in 1972 as a co-operative of community stores in Arnhem Land. Today they operate stores in 25 remote locations across the Northern Territory and Queensland. Its owners and 92 per cent of its staff are indigenous, providing much-needed jobs and financial independence for indigenous communities.
“It’s inevitable that we’re going to pay more [for produce],” said Mr. King. “It costs us more to get it out here. We don’t have the volumes to go to the manufacturers and get the prices Woolworths and Coles get”.
Despite those obstacles, the board of directors have committed to contributing to better health for their people, subsidizing freight on fruit and vegetables, tinned fruit, frozen vegetables and dairy. They also sell 600mL bottles of water for $1, and have seen the sales of soft drink stagnate as a result.
“The whole strategy is to drive consumption and get people choosing healthier food because it’s more affordable,” said Mr. King.
“We’re working with kids from an early age about what’s a good choice and what’s not,” he said. “That’s going to help them as they start shopping on their own and feeding their own children.”
Local resident David Garrtji says the ALPA stores have ‘changed everything’.
“It’s good for people, but mostly the young kids,” he said. “Our great great grandparents, they were moving. That’s why they were healthier.”
Local people, local food
Brimblecombe believes that addressing the retail price of imported groceries is only part of the solution, and that reincorporating traditional and local foods into the diet can also improve nutrition.
“For thousands of years they played such an important part in keeping people healthy,” she said.
Joe Morrison, the CEO of the Northern Land Council, agrees that local production should be part of the solution.
“We should be reconsidering how we harvest local resources,” he said. “They’re typically a lot fresher and could be more nutritious and provide more health benefits for local people.”
For the past 30 years, ALPAs stores have sold local produce at cost price to boost sales, but stocking it has often been problematic owing to restrictive food handling regulation that made it difficult for traditionally hunted or caught food to be stocked on supermarket shelves.
"It provides opportunities for local employment as well."
There is, however, a new resolve to restructure regulation to promote good nutrition and financially self-sustainable jobs and industry. The NT government recently changed their Aboriginal Coastal Fishing License to make it easier for local fishermen to sell their catch in the stores, as well as providing training in food handling to help local producers meet commercial guidelines.
“This provides an opportunity for fresh seafood all year round, and it does provide opportunities for local employment as well,” said Willem Westra Van Holthe, the NT Deputy Chief Minister.
Mr. King also emphasizes employment, stating that it’s a “big part of health and well-being.”
David Djalangi, a traditional owner in Galiwinku and co-founder and board member of ALPA, hopes their business and a focus on local production can help turn the health of local people around.
“We want to run our own affairs,” he said. “We know that we can run it but not until our clans want to learn, go to school every day before they can be a manager and run the store.”