Solutions to food affordability and availability in remote communities

Getting enough healthy food at all times is not something many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in remote communities can take for granted. COVID-19 has exposed a decades-old issue that contributes significantly to the health gap between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous Australians. Now is the time to support communities during this pandemic and to increase future resilience.

If the COVID-19 pandemic has a silver lining it is how this experience makes us think twice about what we want ‘normal’ times to look like.

One of the successes of Australia’s response has been the ubiquitous priority recognition given to our First Nations people in remote communities, and the swift response in protecting them. They bear a disproportionate double burden of co-morbidity and economic inequality, and are among those most at risk of severe COVID-19 related symptoms. The advocacy and leadership of Indigenous organisations, and the rapid response from government in declaring the Biosecurity Act, has thus far safeguarded people living in remote communities.

Pre-COVID-19, dietary risk factors and obesity contributed at least 18 per cent of the burden of disease experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. In remote communities, 31 per cent are reported to experience food insecurity – the inability to regularly access enough healthy food, which leads to poor diet – compared to ONLY 4% of all Australians. The true prevalence could be twice as high. Food insecurity is caused by a lack of food availability due at times to precarious supply, and a lack of food affordability, resulting from those with the lowest incomes paying the highest food prices in our nation. Limited access to manufacturer deals and buying power, freight costs, challenging logistics, high operational and maintenance costs and supply to a small population are amongst the factors impacting on the cost of food. That was in ‘normal’ times – the times that led to this disproportionate level of co-morbidity.

The COVID-19 response travel restrictions and increased government allowances have increased demand on community stores, already feeling the squeeze on supply, due to the flow-on effects of major supermarket purchasing elsewhere.

Federal Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt recently created the Food Security Working Group to closely monitor issues specific to remote and regional Australia. Emergency food relief has been provided to communities, a necessity when there are abnormal pressures on the system. This will not solve the problem though, that requires a systematic approach from government. We anticipate the Food Security Working Group will succeed in quarantining, what in the scheme of things is such a small volume of the nation’s food supply, to ensure sustainable food availability in remote stores.

But there has been no relief on the food affordability front. Remote community residents receiving government allowances have shared the benefits of the national economic package. However, they continue to face disproportionately high food prices compared to those living in regional centres – on average 60% for healthy food in the Northern Territory and other remote jurisdictions. This comes at the same time as access to town supermarkets with their lower food prices, has been restricted.

Now more than ever, healthy food price equity is essential. Governments, manufacturers, wholesalers and major supermarkets must come together with communities and remote stores to address this issue.

Being able to purchase healthy food at regional centre prices will go a long way to supporting people in remote communities now. We need to address ongoing food price inequity to improve food security and diet quality, and ultimately reduce disease burden to ensure remote communities recover and build resilience.

It is time for real action on food price equity and food affordability. This pandemic is making us think deeply about what sort of society we want beyond this current crisis. Here is our opportunity to shape it. Healthy food price equity is a new normal we would like to see.

Dr Megan Ferguson is a Senior Lecturer in Public Health Nutrition at The University of Queensland. She manages a research program in partnership with Aboriginal community-controlled organisations that seeks to improve food security.