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There are serious concerns about the high costs of fresh produce in remote communities in Western Australia (WA), with the cost of fruit and vegetables in some of the state's Indigenous communities as much as three to four times more than supermarkets in Perth.
Cited as a factor for the high rate of chronic diseases in Indigenous communities, researchers are calling for nutritious foods to be subsidised, and for doctors in remote area to be able to 'prescribe' fresh produce. 'I feel strongly that we should as a nation have some kind of way of giving people in remote parts access to fresh food at capital city supermarket prices. It wouldn’t cost us much in relative terms,' said University of South Australia researcher Kerin O'Dea. 'We give a huge diesel fuel rebate to mining companies and yet we don’t invest in the health of people, particularly children.'
The idea of subsidising fresh fruit and vegetables was supported by Winthrop Professor Jill Milroy of the Poche Centre for Indigenous Health at the University of Western Australia. 'Getting good, healthy food is really important and it needs to be addressed. It probably has to be subsidies because there is a lot of cost factors in getting food up there,' she said.
Christina Pollard, a nutrition policy adviser for the WA Department of Health, pointed out the disparities between food and income, noting that welfare recipients need to spend 50 per cent of their disposable income to achieve a healthy diet compared with 15 per cent nationally. 'Food in general is more expensive, but healthy food is disproportionately expensive, particularly things like fruit and vegetables which need to be transported under refrigeration and don’t have a long shelf life.'
However there is some hope, as pointed out by Chief Executive of Ngaanyatjarra Health Service, Brett Cowling, who said the problem was being tackled by the communities themselves. At community-owned stores the price of fresh food is being kept low by not applying transport costs and in some areas full-strength soft drinks have been pulled from the shelves. 'Subsidies are being discussed, and are an option, but I have seen the same results through good community governance and where the community have worked towards that outcome themselves,' he said.
Organisations such as Foodbank are also providing assistance to Indigenous communities, running breakfast programs in more than 400 schools, providing shelf-stable food, and working with communities to make positive health behaviour changes, such as including bush tucker in diet. 'Traditional methods are important and it’s important culturally to keep those going,' Stephanie Godrich, Foodbank WA regional strategy co-ordinator, said. 'We need to acknowledge that Aboriginal people have a lot to offer us.'