OPINION PIECE – THE AUSTRALIAN, 17 December 2008
Fresh ideas for CDEP
The basic need for Indigenous people to be able to access and eat fresh, nutritious food has recently been thrust into the national spotlight.
In August this year, Kimberly MLA Carol Martin rightly questioned why the Mulan Community Store was charging $14 for half a pumpkin.
Then, last month, emergency food aid had to be flown in to the Buringarrah Aboriginal community east of Carnarvon in WA when the community store was forced to close.
In a prosperous and developed nation like Australia, this is surely unacceptable.
Now the Australian Parliament’s House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs has announced an enquiry into the operation of community stores in remote Indigenous communities.
Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin is to be applauded for asking the committee to look at a range of issues but, most importantly the critical issues of food supply, quality and cost and their impact on the health and economic circumstances of Indigenous communities.
I support such an enquiry. I hope that it takes the widest view possible regarding food supply and nutrition in Indigenous communities and steps outside the door of community stores to see what is happening and not happening on the ground.
I am sure the Committee will look at the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Nutrition Strategy and Action Plan 2000 to 2010 which states “any approaches to improving nutrition must be based on community development strategies that facilitate community ownership and participation.”
Growing, healthy, nutritious, fresh fruit and vegetables in remote Indigenous communities would be an obvious community development strategy to help combat this problem, yet depressingly little is happening.
The Federal Government is currently restructuring the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) scheme to focus on work readiness and community development and I have publicly welcomed those changes.
However, I believe there are compelling reasons for an additional and vital reform to be made to CDEP in remote regions, and that is to require each CDEP to implement community-based horticultural projects to grow fresh fruit and vegetables.
I have written to Minister Macklin suggesting this reform as I believe it would build knowledge and skills in sustainable horticulture, help ameliorate the prohibitive costs of fresh produce in remote locations and contribute to self-sufficiency.
The concept would provide badly-needed fresh produce in remote areas where Indigenous people, particularly children and expectant mothers, are suffering a range of health issues caused, or exacerbated, by poor diet and a lack of nutrition.
Recent research shows that increasing fruit and vegetable intake can help prevent coronary heart disease, various forms of cancer, obesity, high blood pressure and blood cholesterol levels and improve the control of diabetes which is prevalent in Indigenous communities.
Therefore, assisting CDEPs to undertake horticultural production will assist in the Government’s commitment regarding “Closing the Gap” in Indigenous life expectancy and infant and child mortality through improving nutrition in remote Indigenous communities.
There are 75 remote CDEPs spread across Australia yet only 15 of them list any form of horticultural activity.
It is legitimate to ask what the other 60 remote area CDEPs are doing in this regard.
Horticultural gardening is surely a fundamental community development initiative and yet the enormous amounts of taxpayer money put into CDEP operations across Australia have produced only a handful of viable fruit and vegetable market gardens. If CDEPs are not growing fruit and vegetables, then what are they doing?
Remote CDEPs should have a contractual obligation to establish fruit and vegetable market gardens and to provide fresh fruit and vegetables to the entire community.
This would provide motivation and meaningful physical activity for the people involved in growing produce that could be sold through community stores, providing economic returns and healthy eating outcomes.
Fresh, locally grown fruit and vegetables would be very much cheaper and fresher as the massive transport costs of hauling produce over thousands of kilometres would disappear.
Growing produce can be shared between men and women and can also involve children through the local school. The gardens would be instructive for children who could learn from and experience the joy of growing fruit and vegetables.
The development of fresh fruit and vegetable market gardens would also give people skills that would assist them to transition to real jobs when opportunities arise, as well as give them practical experience in a structured work environment.
I am not suggesting a radical reform nor is the ILC standing back, pointing the finger and asking others to develop the proposal.
The Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry is already funding a fresh food production program for Torres Strait communities under its National Landcare Program.
The ILC would be happy to work with the Ministers for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry and Education, Employment and Workplace Relations and other key agencies to bring the necessary expertise and funding, together with existing CDEP operational funds, so horticultural projects can be established as quickly as possible in remote Indigenous communities.
We have a critical opportunity to do something simple and practical to support Indigenous people in remote Australia to make a real difference to the health and well-being of their children and families. If this opportunity is missed, then the Government will struggle in its objective of ‘Closing the Gap’ in Indigenous health in remote areas. Instead, the circumstances of remote Indigenous communities will continue as they have for the past thirty years.
As Kev Carmody and Paul Kelly say in their famous song “from little things big things grow.”