Following the release of the eighth annual ‘Closing the Gap’ report, data demonstrates that Indigenous communities in Australia still lack access to basic nutritional foods – a key requirement if social disadvantage is to be eliminated.
Since the first Closing the Gap report, there has been hardly any improvement in the life expectancy gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians. Aboriginal men have an average life expectancy of 69.1 years, compared to non-Aboriginal men, who could expect to live almost ten years more. Similarly, Aboriginal women, who have a life expectancy of 73.7 years, live nine years fewer on average than non-Aboriginal women. The life expectancy gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians is largely due to preventable diet-related illnesses, including cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes. The importance of food and nutrition in fighting chronic disease in Aboriginal communities, furthermore, is not as widely acknowledged as it ought to be.
Diet-related disease has a larger effect on health in Aboriginal communities than smoking and alcohol. Indigenous Australians are 1.5 times more likely to be obese than non-Indigenous Australians. Chronic kidney disease is twice as prevalent for Indigenous Australians. Lower rates of daily exercise, nutrition and food security are major contributors to preventable disease in Aboriginal communities.
Indigenous communities in remote regional areas often find it challenging to access nutritious food. As Aboriginal communities lost access to their traditional land, processed, western-style foods replaced traditional nutritious diets. Often, the only food available today in remote Indigenous communities is cheap, processed and highly unhealthy. The standard of health in urban and rural Aboriginal communities cannot improve without action targeting nutrition.
Combined with unemployment and low income, transit costs and inflation caused the mining boom have left many Indigenous communities struggling to afford expensive fresh food. In Australia, the challenge to ensure adequate nutritional intake for the entire population poses a major problem. Large numbers of Australians experience obesity due to poor lifestyle choice while others, such as those in remote Aboriginal communities, are food insecure because they do not have access to affordable healthy food.
The 2016 Closing the Gap report pays little attention to the importance of improving nutrition. While some states, such as Queensland and the Northern Territory, have had some success in implementing health and nutrition programmes, the holistic benefits of placing nutrition at the forefront of the Commonwealth policy agenda would not be insignificant. Creating access to affordable and nutritious food should be a policy priority to increase food security for Aboriginal Australians, not just in remote communities but in urban areas, too. Greater education programmes targeting Indigenous people to reduce consumption of sugary soft drinks and processed foods should be paired with subsidies on fresh, nutritious food. A previous FDI paper has noted the benefit of community participation in encouraging healthy eating habits, including the development of community and school kitchen gardens, city farms and farmers’ markets to encourage a healthy connection with food.
Time and patience is undoubtedly required if meaningful change is to be seen to close the gap. While there have been reductions in smoking rates, increased health checks and improvements to educational outcomes for Indigenous children, diet-related disease remains a significant impediment to social development. Actions targeting nutrition must, therefore, be made a priority for the government’s policy agenda, both for rural remote communities and for those living in urban areas. Health is a key ingredient for alleviating social disadvantage. Enhancing food security has the ability to improve standards of living, reduce the frequency of disease, further scholastic efforts and provide future generations with a better chance of success. Australia has great need for a long-term, bipartisan strategy to ensure health and nutrition gain status as a priority in order to close the gap.