The Milk Moustache’s Alexia Attwood reflects on our national psychology: trumpeting global gourmet cooking and discounting malnutrition. 

As a nation, we are the ultimate dichotomy. We have skyrocketing obesity problems, and on the other end of the spectrum, Indigenous Australians literally wasting away from malnutrition.

Australia is a proud country with high self-esteem – so high that we repeatedly fail to address the major blips on our human rights record, especially the paradoxical problem of nutrition. This oversight seems at odds with our nation’s legendary ethos of mateship and extending a hand to those in need. Perhaps we are not the classless and ‘demonstratively egalitarian’ society that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade claims us to be.

Amnesty International Secretary, General Salil Shetty, flew in last month and visited the remote Indigenous community of Utopia in the Northern Territory. He said that what he saw was ‘devastating’. His dismay was compounded by the fact that Australia is one of the richest countries in the world, so has no excuse for its current state of affairs.

We have spent most of October celebrating our diverse abundance of gastronomic options at the Sydney International Food Festival, and yet in remote communities of Australia, access to fresh produce is severely limited, so there is little to be celebrating. While we visit noodle markets by twilight and marvel at international chefs conjuring up elaborate food extravaganzas, we have other members of our nation starving. Often communities can only purchase fruit and vegetables at convenience stores where the turnover is infrequent, the produce is rotting, and the prices are unreasonable, causing people to turn to cheaper, processed, and nutrient-deficient foods. This fast food attitude is also caused by the state of housing in towns like Utopia, where many don’t own working stoves or refrigerators, so cannot store and cook fresh produce to begin with.

If transportation and distribution are the major problems in accessing all the corners of our red land, then why not hire more workers? Buy more trucks, trains and planes?  (The same logic goes for refugee onshore processing. Why not hire more staff to get the job done, rather than outsourcing to Malaysia?)

Many communities would benefit from investments in new technologies, such as aquaponic systems, which recycle water through a fish tank gravel garden setup, and can be used to cultivate vegetable gardens in arid climates. These vegetables could then supply the local store, creating a more self-sufficient and healthier community, if implementation and education programs are managed properly.

Back in the big smoke, we want to know the intricate details of how to perfect that challenging French or Vietnamese recipe, creating just the right texture, flavour and presentation, yet many of us don’t know the basics of traditional Indigenous tucker. Perhaps whilst celebrating at our Food and Wine festival, more emphasis could be placed on traditional Indigenous dishes. And instead of bemoaning our own lack of traditional dishes, vegemite and lamingtons aside, we could learn more about the nectar-baring flowers like bottlebrush and grevillia, the root extracts of various shrubs, honey ants and wild berries, that are gathered out in the middle of Australia every day.

Australian households throw away more than $5 billion worth of food each year, according to a 2009 analysis of household expenditure on food. $1.1 billion of waste is fresh food and vegetables. Clearly we don’t know how lucky we are.

Secretary General Salil Shetty’s visit once again highlights that there is a roadblock in our national psychology. We condemn human rights abuses all over the world, and yet have literally failed over and over to eliminate our hypocrisy and clean up our own act first – our understanding of Indigenous culture and our management strategies in strengthening communities.

‘Mateship’ is our national characteristic? Perhaps ‘self-deluded’ would be a more apt description. Clearly there is an Australian class structure – those with and those without.


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