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STANDING COMMITTEE ON ABORIGINAL AND TORRES STRAIT ISLANDER AFFAIRS - 29/04/2009 - Community stores in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities

CHAIR —We have had a number of people indicate that they would like to speak, so we will work through that list. We have a little time left. I think the next person who was interested in speaking was Fairy Stevens. Fairy, what role do you have in the community?

Ms Stevens —I am on the council and have been for three years. I will speak in my language, and Mr Tregenza will translate into English. In the past the store had bad food and people were really getting very sick, including all the kids and the women. After Mai Wiru came along there was better food and the people are now eating better and getting better and this is making people happy. We are happy now with Mai Wiru speaking in Pitjantjatjara language policy and the store. There is now a lot of good fruit and vegetables in the store. Before, we were getting sick and the food was not so good. Now the fruit and vegetables are much better and we are happy about it. This is happening not only here in Fregon, it is also happening in all the communities from Indulkana right through to Pipalyatjara. The people who had been eating bad fruit from before have become ill and have had to go away.

We really want all of our children to be healthy into the future. We want them to be able to eat good food and to go to school and be happy. We do not want it to be like it was in the past. We like to speak like this and encourage the children and tell them to eat well and to eat good food, to listen to their grandparents—their grandmothers and grandfathers—telling them to eat good food so that they will grow up and be strong and pass this information on to the next generation so that everyone will be healthy into the future. That is all I have got to say and I hope you heard it well.

CHAIR —Fairy, can we ask you some questions? You said that some members of the community got sick and they then had to go away. Where did they go?

Ms Stevens —The ones who got sick before went into hospital and then onto dialysis, and there are other people similarly sick in the community now.

CHAIR —And when they go into hospital, do they go into Alice Springs or Adelaide? Where do they go?

Ms Stevens —Some have already gone into Alice Springs. Others have gone down to Adelaide, and some who have just gone into Alice Springs have had X-rays and things and have come back to the community.

CHAIR —Fairy, do you have a position within Mai Wiru?

Ms Stevens —No, I don’t. I listen to what is being said and I understand that and that is why I speak like this.

CHAIR —Is there an ability for the community to talk to Mai Wiru about the way the policy is working or to change the policy and, for example, make sure the policy is enforced? How does Mai Wiru consult with you?

Ms Stevens —I understand about good food and health. I understand that I have got to teach my family. I teach my children. When I go to the doctor I get told what I am supposed to be eating, because I am ill. I learn all this and I understand that that is what I have got to do. I want to teach this to my children and grandchildren.

CHAIR —Do Mai Wiru hold consultations with the community about the policy?

Ms Stevens —Yes, they talk to us and they explain why we should be eating good food. We have meetings and explain that we need to be strong and healthy from eating good food, and that is where we hear it.

CHAIR —My only other question is: how do you get kids to stop drinking Coke?

Ms Stevens —Some people like to drink Coca-Cola; some people do not want to drink Coca-Cola. For my part, I know that it is bad for your teeth. I have just taken two of my grandsons into Alice Springs. I have had to have their teeth done. Now they have also learnt that they should not be drinking that much Coca-Cola because it is bad for them. That is how they learn.

CHAIR —Do you think that with the adverse effects on health that people are experiencing the message is getting through about the way products like Coca-Cola affect your health?

Ms Stevens —Some are listening and are therefore eating good food. Some are not listening and they are eating bad food and they are the ones who are becoming ill.

CHAIR —Thank you, Fairy, for giving us that evidence, and thank you, John, for translating. The next group of people we have who would like to speak before the committee are from the Fregon school. There are three representatives. What positions do you hold in the school?

Mr McDonald —I am a teacher.

Mr Robinson —I am the administration finance officer.

Ms Cedrych —I am the junior primary teacher.

CHAIR —Do one or each of you want to make a statement to the committee?

Mr Robinson —Having come in late, I am not 100 per cent sure of what has been happening, but I guess we would like to talk about it from a school perspective. For the last two or three years the school has been working very hard on nutrition and health. We get support from Adelaide. People have come up from UniSA and talked to the children, the teachers and everybody else about how to cook healthy food and about what is healthy and what is not healthy.

We run a breakfast program. Students who arrive in the morning eat breakfast every day. That food is provided by the Red Cross, so luckily we do not have to pay for that. They even pay for freight, which is even better. It is basically cereal, fruit juice and fruit. That is what we provide for them in the mornings. We also provide them with lunch every day. Three times a week it is a hot meal and twice a week it is sandwiches. For the hot meals we did some research and it was people from UniSA, I think, who recommended that we use a company called Galipo Foods—you have probably heard of them—in South Australia. We order food from them that is already prepacked and we bring it up frozen. The food we use is vegies, fish and chicken. What else do we have, guys? Help me out here.

Mr McDonald —Pasta.

Mr Robinson —Yes, pasta. There is all sorts of stuff. Three times a week we give them a hot meal. As I said, the other times we give them sandwiches. We do things like egg sandwiches or ham and cheese sandwiches, just for variety. It costs the school lot of money to provide this. It actually comes directly out of our funds, but luckily last year the store committee generously approved us $5,000, which helped considerably towards the cost of Galipo Foods. It almost covers it for a year. We are hoping somewhere along the line to do the same thing this year, but with the new owners and the new managers we have not got around to that yet. We did get support from them to do this.

We have also had—well, I have, anyway—informal talks with the new managers at the store, prior to the holidays; we have only just come back today from holidays. I believe they are staying now; I have heard that on the grapevine—the grapevines are great—and they are really keen to work with us in relation to nutrition and healthy foods. We talked about what they can provide as to what we can provide and all that sort of thing. As a school, we see it as: it is not the store that needs to do things about nutrition, it is everybody, from this office to the school to the clinic, and we are trying to work collaboratively.

We are not going to say that the food we provide is fantastic and it is 100 per cent nutritious, but it is better than the alternative, which could be pies and pasties, chips and Coke. So we do provide an alternative. It is cooked, and we give them vegies every day with their meal. There are sandwiches. And, as I say, breakfast is pretty good. The school has been committed for a number of years to trying to educate the children, which is a good place to start. But we have only got them from nine until 3.30, so what they have for tea is beyond our control. Coming the other way, with the store and everybody working together, I am sure we can do a better job.

CHAIR —Can I ask you some questions about the food you are providing. Breakfasts are supplied by the Red Cross. Are they freighted in from Alice Springs?

Mr Robinson —From Adelaide.

CHAIR —How often does that food come?

Mr Robinson —We usually do an order once a term. So we get the Weet-Bix in, and we get a heap of skim milk because they will not provide full-cream milk.

CHAIR —What is that—long-life milk?

Mr Robinson —It is Devondale long-life milk.

Mrs VALE —Skim milk is not suitable for children.

CHAIR —So Red Cross do not provide full-cream milk?

Mr Robinson —No, they will not.

Mrs VALE —Why not?

Mr Robinson —Good question. We asked them and they said, no, they are only allowed to provide skim.

Mrs VALE —Even on the side of the skim milk packet, it says it is not suitable for children and babies.

Mr Robinson —I know. It is something to do with it being higher in calcium or something.

Mrs VALE —But it has increased sugar.

Mr McDonald —I have heard that it is more nutrient dense because they have taken away the fat.

Mrs VALE —Yes, but they add more sugar to skim milk.

Mr McDonald —I am not aware of that.

Mrs VALE —Trust me—I am on a diet; I know! Actually, I have gone back to fat milk—if I can call it that—for that reason, because it still has the calcium content but it does not have the sugar content. Tony, how many children do you have in the school?

Mr Robinson —We have an enrolment of 45 to 50. If we get half, we are really pleased. In the first term, I do not know how many breakfasts we were doing—maybe a dozen—for the children. We can only do breakfasts for so long and then we have to close it down. But if we can get the children there on time we will feed them all. So we feed anywhere from 15 to 20 children.

Mrs VALE —Is the fact that the children are being fed breakfast and lunch encouraging any better attendance?

Mr Robinson —We would like to think so, but we cannot quantify that. But we would hope so, yes.

Mrs VALE —What about on your hot-food lunch days? Perhaps you cannot tell that.

Mr Robinson —This year, no. It has been a weird year with attendances, I must admit. They have been a lot lower than last year and a lot lower than we have had before, and we do not know the reason. Normally, you can say, ‘Oh, there is a funeral,’ or ‘There is an inma,’—there is something—but it has been a hundred different things and it has just been a bit weird. But I know that last year the hot food, especially coming up to term two or term three when it is a little bit cooler, was a big hit. I know that last year we were doing 35, 40 or even 45 lunch meals. Bear in mind as well that these guys—Dean McDonald and Julie Cedrych—do all the work. So we are not only teaching the kids, we are cooking their breakfasts and their lunches as well. It is a really huge school commitment, and we are determined to see it through and get it right. We know we can work with these new managers at the store, and by the end of the year I think there will be a huge improvement here.

Mrs VALE —How long have you been here, Tony?

Mr Robinson —I came to Fregon at the start of last year, so this is my second year here.

Mrs VALE —Perhaps you are not the right person to ask whether there has been any history of a community garden or anything in this community.

Mr Robinson —I am not aware of any.

Mrs VALE —When I came into town I saw that somebody had a back garden full of what looked like cabbages or something. Do you know who—

Mr Robinson —No.

Mrs VALE —Is that the CDEP people? I should ask John whether there has been any history of growing vegetables in this place or of having chickens or pigs. Some communities we have been to have had a history of that in the past but, for whatever reason, have let those community gardens lapse or have not pursued the abattoir or whatever.

Mr Robinson —I know that has happened. It starts off well but then it does not get watered or whatever.

Mrs VALE —Without wanting to load your teachers with any more work, some of the schools in my community, which is urban Sydney, have their own school community gardens. Would that be something that you could do? Often if you teach young kids how to grow things when they are little, even carrots or tomatoes or something, it is something they continue to do.

Mr Robinson —It is a good idea. We have done a tree planting off the side a bit. We bought over 100 native trees and we have planted them over the last 12 or 18 months. But we go on holidays three times a year for two or three weeks and over Christmas for six or seven weeks and the problem is in getting somebody to look at it when we are not here, because basically we go home—to our real homes.

Mrs VALE —What about a water supply? Is there sufficient water to grow a market garden?

Mr Robinson —I am not really sure. Maybe you should ask some of these guys. I know the water is all right but I do not know how much we have got.

CHAIR —In terms of the meals you provide, where do you get the products for the sandwiches?

Mr Robinson —Through the store.

CHAIR —Are they made at the store?

Mr Robinson —No, we make the sandwiches.

CHAIR —So you get the produce from the store and you make them.

Mr Robinson —Yes.

CHAIR —Are the prepacked hot meals delivered every term?

Mr Robinson —When needed. I think last year we ordered twice. We get 2,000 or 3,000 bucks worth of food.

CHAIR —Obviously they are coming up frozen.

Mr Robinson —Yes.

CHAIR —Are they kept at the store?

Mr Robinson —No, we have a number of freezers at the school. That is adequate to freeze them. When I say prepacked, they are not like TV dinners. There will be a box of 24 pieces of fish and a big bag of veggies. We heat them and put them on plates for the students.

CHAIR —Thank you very much for your input today.

Mr McDonald —One of the things that Tony has not mentioned is that we provide healthy meals but, as Tony has alluded to, all we as teachers can do is what we do at school. It is really important to work with the store and have the same aims about nutrition. For example, at break times the kids often come back to the class with a pie or something like that. It is a matter of us all working together.

CHAIR —When the vegetables are provided in the meals, do the kids eat them?

Mr McDonald —We have come up with a really good way for the kids to eat them. We put the meatballs and vegetables in the pasta sauce and then they get eaten. They do eat them—but maybe not all of them, though.

Ms Cedrych —I agree with what Tony and Dean have said. I think the main thing is working with the store, because the kids do come back after break times with ice blocks, chips and all those sorts of things. Even though we are providing food, it is obviously not doing everything that it should be—I do not know what the solution is—because they do still go to the store to buy all sorts of other food.

CHAIR —In other places there are at least suggestions that kids will not be served during school hours. Do you think that might make a difference?

Ms Cedrych —Yes, something like that, or just spending some time with the store managers in discussing what can be done together. A whole community approach to it really.

Mrs VALE —We have also learned that in many of the homes there are not the proper facilities for preparing food. Would you say that that limits the range that the mothers and grandmothers can offer the children?

Ms Cedrych —Yes. I have heard from other teachers that kids have come around with a cake or a pizza, saying, ‘Can I put this in your oven?’ I think that would help.

Mrs VALE —So the lack of proper appropriate cooking facilities is one of the obstacles that the families have to face.

Ms Cedrych —Yes.

Mrs VALE —I am told also that they do not have proper freezing facilities on refrigerators or things like that.

Ms Cedrych —Tony might be able to answer that better, but as far as I know that is correct.

Mr Robinson —You are right. I think they have been provided but for one reason or another they are not working or broken or that sort of stuff. So you are right on the mark there.

Mrs VALE —When houses are provided for families, do you know how well equipped they are with those types of electrical items, if they do have them or not? Maybe I should ask Stephan that.

Mr Rainow —Housing for health is one of my main areas of work. The capital cost of a house includes the provision of a stove. I have been party to a national trial of stoves. We can show that stoves are operating about 6½ hours a day. Australian governments, including the Federal government, spend about $30 million a year on Electrolux stoves. We have been back to Electrolux and they have said, ‘We only design our product to operate five to six hours a week.’ We are trying to get improvements in stoves on the basis of the $30 million the states and the Commonwealth spend on repairing and replacing Electrolux stoves. We have not had much luck at the moment. They supply stoves, houses get supplied with stoves. They do not get supplied with refrigerators. In the past we have been able to get them supplied with standardised commercial grade washing machines, because that is our second-highest healthy living practice, the capacity to wash clothes and bedding. That is about it.

Mrs VALE —What about microwaves? Are they not supplied with a microwave oven?

Mr Rainow —The only thing that is supplied as part of normal public housing criteria is a stove. There is a hot water system, obviously.

Mrs VALE —So they do not supply washing machines or refrigerators.

Mr Rainow —We had in the past. They keep changing their acronyms, but when we got stoves they used to be called the South Australian Aboriginal Housing Unit. We talked them into providing washing machines. But we have gone back since then. I was just called out to a community two weeks ago to ask why washing machines were not supplied in the new lot of Commonwealth funded houses. I have been back to the state government agency and they said currently it is in the hands of their policymakers.

Mrs VALE —Okay. Why are stoves here in these communities used five and six hours a day?

Mr Rainow —One of the major reasons is that we have what is called overcrowding in houses. We can have populations of 15 to 20 people in a house.

Mrs VALE —So individual people use the stove for their own individual needs; there is not somebody in the home that does the cooking, for example.

Mr Rainow —Exactly. Bear in mind that there is high unemployment in this area and people spend a lot of time around the house. When you are employed you go out, you go to work, you come home and you cook a feed. But people are around the house quite a bit. It also does get used for heating because it goes to minus temperatures here in winter.

Mrs VALE —So the stove is used as a heating source?

Mr Rainow —Exactly.

Mrs VALE —Do they turn it on and open the door or something?

Mr Rainow —Yes.

Mrs VALE —Really?

Mr Rainow —Yes, the temperatures get to minus. This is the desert. It gets very cold.

Mrs VALE —So there is no other heating facility within the house at all?

Mr Rainow —In the past we collaboratively developed designs with the South Australian mob, and now—I do not know if you are aware—there is a National Indigenous housing guide. I have a copy here if you would like to take it with you. You can see exactly what is happening with heating and cooling nationally. In the past we have put in fireplaces and then there is the issue of how you keep the firewood up to it. We have also put slow combustion stoves in, but there is an issue of not only how you keep the firewood there but also how you get it in small enough pieces to fit inside the slow combustion stove. We have tried. Generally, when winter comes people go to the store and buy bar heaters and they put them in all the rooms and then we have the problem of the generator not having enough charge.

Mrs VALE —They are a very inefficient form of heating.

Mr Rainow —Yes, and we would like to see a whole lot more R&D on better, energy efficient wall heaters.

Mrs VALE —Who provides the heat of whatever kind? Do the people have to buy it themselves? So these people on Centrelink benefits are given a home and a stove in the home and nothing else? Is that right?

Mr Rainow —That is right.

Mrs VALE —So they have to provide for all those kinds of electrical service costs out of their Centrelink benefits?

Mr Rainow —Yes.

Mrs VALE —But the amount of money they get does not quite provide for the food.

Mr Rainow —This is why I keep talking about defining the poverty out here and doing a cost-of-living study.

Mrs VALE —Okay.

Mr Rainow —I did an exhaustive survey of houses in one community back in 1992. Part of the work involved mapping every item that was in that house over a 12-month period. We could not find enough utensils to feed more than four people.

Mrs VALE —This is having dinner sets or knives and forks and spoons.

Mr Rainow —There is no mashed potato maker, salad bowl or cutting board. There are not more than four pannikins or plates.

Mrs VALE —What about tables and chairs?

Mr Rainow —Tables and chairs are very rare. People still sleep on the floor, on mattresses.

Mrs VALE —So, if the families are only getting Centrelink benefits, where was the expectation that they would provide all those things?

Mr Rainow —Good question.

Mrs VALE —I think I am getting a very strong picture.

Mr Rainow —This literature is published. If you are interested, later on I could email you information on where you can get these documents. This is evidence based. We went into houses and around the yards and we mapped all this. We talked about all this years ago back in 1992 when we had a big discussion with Jocelyn Newman, so this is a long story that we have been battling with. Families do not have the wherewithal when they go home to do those things, and store, prepare and cook food is our No. 4 healthy living practice.

Mrs VALE —There is no way the government is providing them with the utensils or the utility to do that.

Mr Rainow —But it becomes relevant for the nutritionists—for instance, NATSINSAP. The national bodies need to know that when they are designing nutrition programs they cannot assume that people can go home and cook up the three veg and the two fruit. How does a young girl make mashed potato and pumpkin? How does she mash it all up a nice little bowl to start feeding the little baby?

Mrs VALE —That is one of the questions that I have been asking—what do they do from when children come off the breast to transit to food. What transitional food choices are there for mothers? Except for Farex, Weet-Bix and commercial baby food, there does not seem to be a great deal of food available. Everybody knows that vegetables that you can boil up yourself in a pot—even if it is in one pot—and mash up are far better for the child than food from a can. It is a much deeper problem than just nutrition, isn’t it, Stephan? That is the surface.

CHAIR —I want to ask a question of anyone who might want to answer it. Perhaps those who have spoken—Robert or Fairy—might answer it. To what extent is people’s intake of food supplemented by hunting or finding food outside of the stores? Does that happen at all? Does any of that activity occur?

Mr Kayipipi —My name is Roger Kayipipi. I am here from Kaltjiti. I grew up in the bush. I am used to hunting in the bush. I used to go out hunting with spears and that is how I grew up. I used to go out hunting rabbits, wild cats and wild dogs and make fires without matches. That is how we used to live out in the bush. I am used to living and hunting out in the bush.

CHAIR —How much do people eat bush food in this community?

Mr Kayipipi —Now I get a lot of food from the store but I like to go out and get bush turkey and kangaroo. I go out and get turkey and kangaroo and teach the grandsons how to do it.

CHAIR —How frequently do people hunt?

Mr Kayipipi —I do not actually live in town. I go out bush, and when I am going out there and when I am going home I look around. I live out in the bush.

I am still working in the bush. I am still working wild camels. I have a lot in the yard. I am a bushman. That is where I live—in the bush. I am really a bushman. I am working with wild camels. I catch camels. I have some in the yard at the moment and will be trucking them next week. Although I do that, I am really a bushman.

Mr Rainow —Back in the late seventies and the early eighties we used to only get a store truck say once every six weeks. There used to be a lot of rabbits around and a lot of men had riffles. There are two things that have impacted on people’s capacity to get bush food these days. The first one is the calicivirus, which has successfully knocked out the rabbits. Women used to dig, men used to go hunting rabbits and kids would throw rocks at rabbits. Rabbit was eaten a lot. But then that virus came through. It knocked out the rabbits. That had a big impact. The second thing was the Port Arthur massacre. That led to the national gun laws and basically this population of men were disarmed. Under the current national gun laws it is very difficult for them to get a licence and to have the capacity to fulfil all the requirements for getting a gun licence these days. It was not uncommon in the late seventies and the eighties that if you went anywhere in a vehicle with any of the Wadeye then there would be a riffle behind the seat and there would be bullets in the ashtray. But they do not have guns any more and the rabbits have gone. Those are the two biggest impacts.

We estimate that they sourced about 80 per cent of food from the bush in the late seventies and the eighties and say 30 per cent from the store. Now it is the other way around. I hope I do not upset Roger here but with the camels coming through one of the things that the men are saying is that the camels are actually chasing the kangaroos out. So there are not that many kangaroos around any more. Then there is the price of fuel. I think at Mimili it is $2.06 a litre for fuel. Things like this impact on the capacity to source bush food.

Mrs VALE —What does Roger do with the camels?

Mr Kayipipi —All the big bulls are sent down south for slaughter and the young cows and young males are sent overseas. They are trucked out from here.

Mrs VALE —So there is an export trade in camels?

Mr Tregenza —There is but in terms of the number of camels around it is a very small operation.

CHAIR —Thank you. We are going to have to wind this up because we are going to need to take off pretty soon as the sun goes down.

Mr Johns —As store manager I have noticed one thing of concern to me, and I have only noticed it in the last couple of months since the ATM rules have changed. It has changed to direct charging. So now, no matter what your situation is with your own bank, in using a foreign ATM everyone has to pay a $2 fee. What I have noticed is that the people who can least afford to pay any bank fees are the ones who are paying the most—for example, the people who are on Centrelink benefits. I have seen instances of people doing a balance check of their account through an ATM, which incurs a $2 fee, two or three times a day. If the money is not there the first time then they will try again a little bit later and keep trying again until their benefit is actually in their bank account. I would be horrified to see the bank statements of some of these people who live in these communities because the ATM is the only way of getting their money, apart from the few who still get paid by cheque from Centrelink. That is an issue where I would imagine some people will be paying many dollars a week or a fortnight just to access their own money. That is money that is just lost to the community in total.

CHAIR —Thank you, that is a very good point. I thank everyone for attending today. We really appreciate the time you have given us. The contributions you have made today help us in our inquiry into remote community stores. To give you a bit of a sense of where that is going, this is an inquiry that began in December of last year. We have had a number of hearings in Canberra with various government departments but we are doing three trips within Australia. We did one about a month ago to the Torres Strait and the top of Cape York. This week we are in central Australia. In July we will be going to the Top End in the Northern Territory and Western Australia. We will be reporting back to the parliament around September this year. It will be a matter then for the government as to whether or not they take up the recommendations that we make. The transcripts of today’s hearing will be on the parliamentary website, which is www.aph.gov.au. Ultimately when we give our report to the parliament that will also be posted on the parliamentary website so you will be able to have access to what we recommend at that point in time.

Resolved (on motion by Mrs Vale):

That this subcommittee authorises publication, including publication on the parliamentary database, of the transcript of the evidence given before it at public hearing this day.

Subcommittee adjourned at 5.22 pm