Fuel costs cause more hunger in the bush

August 30, 2008

"People are eating mainly bread, flour, milk powder and sugar, and deriving a huge proportion of their energy from these foods that cost the least but are going to fill people up and divert hunger", Julie Brimblecombe told ABC Radio National's The World Today on August 25.

Brimblecombe, an Aboriginal nutrition expert from the Menzies School of Health Research in the Northern Territory, has completed research indicating an alarming inequity between food prices in Australian cities and remote Aboriginal communities.

While food has always been more expensive to buy in the bush, because much of it is transported from thousands of kilometres away, rising fuel prices have exacerbated the high transport costs.

Stores run as not-for-profit enterprises on behalf of the community are forced to pass this increased cost onto consumers, leading to a situation in which the country's poorest people are paying 50% more for food than city dwellers, Brimblecombe's report has found.

The August 25 Sydney Morning Herald reported that in the Tanami Desert community of Mulan, six potatoes cost $8.71, half a pumpkin cost $14.42 and sausages were more than $1 each.

Emma Murphy, a Socialist Alliance activist who spent three years living and working in a remote Aboriginal community in Western Australia, told Green Left Weekly that even when the fortnightly fresh produce truck finally arrived, the fruit and vegetables didn't last long. "In extreme cases, when the roads are rough, the food is already six days old. So people want to buy up while it's 'fresh'.

"This means that those with the money and fridges to be able to buy more than a day's worth of food — the non-Indigenous staff — do a big shop. Most Indigenous people don't have fridges, so will tend to do a small shop every day. What is left when all the fresh food goes is frozen white bread, cheap cuts of meat, flour, milk powder and canned food."

Murphy added that non-perishable, low-nutrition food is cheaper, because it doesn't need refrigerated transport and can be ordered from the cities in bulk quantities.

The SMH article reported that, while healthy eating is encouraged through school and clinic programs, people's budget doesn't allow for the diet that government nutrition guidelines recommend. Acknowledging this reality, health workers admit to also recommending dehydrated potatoes, for example, because they are cheaper.

Michael Parnis, manager of the Mulan community store, told The World Today that the only way the prices can come down is through improved infrastructure and government subsidies for fuel and electricity costs.

In the meantime, Murphy said, hunger is a fact of life in remote communities and Indigenous people do what they can to survive. "If someone can afford a tank of petrol, they can go hunting and get a kangaroo that might feed the family for a day or two", she told GLW. "Also, the kids have learnt that, if they get $5 to spend after school, Coke and chocolate will fill them up more than a few pieces of fruit."

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