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John Paterson, CEO AMSANT, Welcome Address

Good food gives me long life: food security, child protection and the future of our families

John Paterson, CEO, Aboriginal Medical Service Alliance Northern Territory [AMSANT]

Best practice and new opportunities—local food gardens, food systems and horticulture workshop, Remote Indigenous Gardens Network and Darwin Indigenous Regional Advancement, Darwin 11-12 November 2010

The song and performance you just witnessed were borne of a miraculous moment in Tennant Creek earlier this year when a bunch of kids from Tennant Creek Primary School got together with Shellie Morris and the Jimmy Little Foundation to create Good food gives me long life. It was a highlight of the AMSANT Fresh Food Summit last May.

It sums up why we are all here today—but also gives us direction for the future.

A couple of weeks ago, we saw the release of the report of the Board of Inquiry into Child Protection in the Northern Territory—Growing strong, together. It was a powerful document, giving substance and detail to the continuing tragedy of neglect and abuse so many children endure here in the Territory. I don’t think anyone would doubt that this report provides us with our major challenge for the future.

A core of its recommendations talks to us about preventive measures we should take in the future. It pointed out that “a lack of adequate food and shelter is a common experience for many children and young people”[1], and that this was a major cause of “serious psychological stress”[2] for nearly half our children.

Food security, then, is a critical issue in child protection.

From work done by a number of our members in the comprehensive primary health care sector, it is clear that access to good food is a critical factor in both preventing chronic disease—but is also vital in benefitting families at risk.

The two go hand in hand, just as the song says: “Good food gives me long life”.

And, it should be said, a happy, healthy and producive life.

It is for that reason the World Health Organisation has identified the availability of affordable, healthy food as being an absolutely critical social determinant in achieving good health.

“Food security”, is built on three main ideas:

First, that there are sufficient quantities of food available on a consistent basis.

Second is the issue of access, or having sufficient resources to obtain appropriate foods for a nutritious diet.

Third, its appropriate use is based on knowledge of basic nutrition and care.

For Aboriginal people food security is a vital public health issue. Access to good, affordable food makes more difference to what people eat than health education.

In other words, it is not just a matter of educating people to eat good food—the food must be available and affordable in the first place. Food poverty can exist side by side with food plenty—and Australia is a good example of that. When people cannot access good food, the consequences in terms of chronic disease are dramatic. In the same terms, when children cannot access to good food, the consequences for their welfare are equally dramatic.

It’s arguably one of the core explanations for why our men can expect to live 17 years less than urr white brothers; our women 13.2 years less than our white sisters.

So what we do here at this workshop is one of the foundations of what we must do to protect our children and our families.

Many of the projects being discussed over the next two days concern CDEP programs.

CDEP was established 33 years ago here in the Northern Territory, at what was then known as Bamyili. It was set up consequent to an explicit demand by the Aboriginal people of the time that they needed a way to escape the dead hand of a life under “sit down money”. Despite the revisiting of history by some, including many in the media and government, it was a deliberate attempt to move away from welfare towards productive work by Aboriginal people, and was supported by policy makers three decades ago.

As we know, the Northern Territory Emergency Response—better known as the Intervention—has included the gradual starving and abolition of CDEP. We are seeing—as was predicted three years ago—a move from work to welfare: the exact opposite of what we were told would be the result.

This will have potentially appalling effects for our people in regional and remote areas of the Northern Territory. There are indications that remote area unemployment may climb towards 50 per cent as CDEP is finally dismantled next year. That is a direct attack on family well being.

And here in Darwin—over the next couple of days—the hopes of our people to actively engage in providing food security to our families hangs in the balance, even as we are talking about best practice and new opportunities.

Starving CDEP will potentially add to the starvation of our children.

And while you may be talking about technical issues of best practice surrounding growing, marketing and distribution of food, you will also be talking about contributing to best practice in terms of child protection.

That is why the Federal Government must urgently review its position on CDEP projects such as the ones you will be discussing today, from household and community gardens through to larger scale horticulture. Not only is it simply untrue that CDEP is mere welfarism, it is clear that CDEP can make a positive contribution towards preventive measures surrounding the health and well being of our children.

And that is what it is all about.


[1] Northern Territory Government 2010, Growing them Strong, Together: Promoting the safety and wellbeing of the Northern Territory’s children, Report of the Board of Inquiry into the Child Protection System in the Northern Territory 2010, M. Bamblett, H. Bath and R. Roseby, Northern Territory Government, Darwin, p.112

[2] Ibid, p. 111

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