Communities going hungry as minister fails pressure test
It’s widely thought that either Marie Antoinette or Marie Therese of the French aristocracy uttered the fateful words ‘let them eat cake’ when told that the peasants were starving. Regardless of who said the words and whether they were said in arrogance, ignorance (or even at all) the PR damage was done.
We all know what happened next.
Last week SA Aboriginal Affairs Minister, Grace Portelesi, had her very own Marie-moment by vacillating on the question of whether Anangu people living on the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) lands in the far north west of South Australia were going hungry.
The following not so flattering media coverage generated by the story prompted the hapless Minister to recant and “clarify” that she did indeed know that Anangu people were going hungry. But the damage was done and her defence didn’t do her too many favours.
Fearing for her political life, the Minister was eager to point to her APY Food Security Strategic Plan 2011-2016 as evidence she was aware of the problem and was even doing something about it!
The document itself was perhaps not the wisest defence. Even on its launch it had attracted widespread criticism for being well-meaning but misguided.
Basically a three point plan of a couple of gardens, some holiday cooking classes and nutritionist, it actually doubled up on work already being done for nigh on a decade by Anangu-led groups on the ground such as NPY Women’s Council and Mai Wiru. Something the Minister would have known earlier had they been consulted in putting the plan together.
The idea of a travelling road-show of ‘Come and Cook With Kids’ is the centrepiece.
For a place where there are already nutritional budget-conscious cooking classes this is about as useful as a screen door on a submarine, or an episode of Masterchef for people on a Centrelink budget and roughly 800kms north of the nearest Coles.
This Mystery Box challenge is a doozy, with a lovely Rosemary Stanton weekly meal plan but no working fridge or stove. Right, you’ve got 60 minutes, get cracking…
It’s clearly mission impossible even if they could afford the ingredients. Which of course they can’t. That is the issue.
Far from being ‘comprehensive’, the SA Government plan is a short document offering new monies of $820,000 over 2 years. It includes ‘trialling’ two gardens in communities serving less than 5 per cent of the total APY population in addition to the cooking classes and nutritionist.
Laudable as a pet project but laughable as a food security strategy.
The plans’ two trial gardens are welcomed and much wanted by their respective communities but concerns that they will go the way of the failed Amata garden and the formerly failed but recently revived Mimili Bush garden are surely valid.
Sure, fresh fruit and veggies grown on your own local patch is a splendid concept but there’s a vast difference between that and the reality of delivering around 10,000 kilos of over 80 varieties of fruit and veggies that the Mai Wiru stores currently deliver at the lowest prices they can manage each month, week in week out.
The latter is food security, the former a food supplement and cynics like me would say that the former gets the gig from the SA Government because that’s what makes for the better photo op.
On that note, Minister Portelesi launched the implementation of her gardens just a week ago with a hand-picked media entourage flown up and back in a whirlwind jaunt that conservatively would have cost $15,000 for some sugar-coated puff pieces and happy snaps.
Meanwhile, unknown to the official entourage, one of the communities they whistle-stopped had just lost its store manager and the store had been forced to close its doors. The Minister’s guided tour didn’t go there. So we’ll probably never know whether she was aware of this and what - if anything - she was doing to salvage the situation.
In this past decade there has been much needed and necessary improvement to food security in the APY. The improved range and quality of fresh food and healthy alternatives in community stores is a testament to this.
However, there is still much work to be done to ensure access to healthy affordable food and health hardware every single day. Toiletries, vegemite, margarine and nappies will never grow on trees and will always need to be shipped in.
Anyone with a fruit tree in the backyard knows that timing and distribution is the difference between the joy of family, friends and neighbours sharing in the bounty of your bumper crop and the pain of being stuck with a house full of rotting fruit that no amount of late-night jam-making will ever fully harness.
The story of opportunities lost due to lack of coordination is well told by the true tale of forty boxes of apricots going begging this past summer smack bang in the centre of the lands. There was just no way to ship them to those in need in an affordable way.
That tale bells the cat on what is becoming an increasingly obvious part of the solution. Freight to and across the lands could be subsidised and roads must be kept in good repair. It’s not rocket science and it’s not new.
It’s a solution put forward by many including the House of Reps Committee and the Fred Hollows Foundation.
But this is the one solution the South Australian Minister has refused to embrace. Even refusing to even read the relevant reports because they were ‘before her watch’. She does so at her own peril.
I hope we are pleasantly surprised by what happens next.
Tammy Franks is a Greens member of the South Australian Legislative Council.
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