BY AMY MCQUIRE, NOVEMBER 1, 2011
Originally published in Tracker Magazine.
An aerial view of the tiny community of Frejon, in the APY Lands in South Australia. The town made headlines recently, with simplistic media reporting about starvation in the community.
SOUTH AUSTRALIA: When the media conjured up images of the Red Cross sending emergency food parcels to an Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Land community last month, the cries about the “starving children” were immediate.
But for the Red Cross, the media attention proved “unhelpful”.
“Certainly the media reporting of that was very sensational, and that’s in spite of us trying to portray the actual situation and what we were doing,” the organisation’s South Australian Executive Director Kerry Symons told Tracker this month. “We found the reporting very unhelpful, certainly for the community of Fregon.”
Fregon is a small township of over 200 people, situated near the top left corner of South Australia.
It, like most of the communities in the APY Lands, has a food security problem. But while the situation is certainly urgent, children are not “starving”, as media claimed.
“We have never talked about starving children,” Ms Symons says. “We have always talked about the fact there are issues of food security and at times, people are hungry. And that is not particular to the APY Lands, there are other regional and remote areas where that happens, and even in Adelaide that can be the case.”
The issue rocketed into the media spotlight after the Red Cross began sending food relief parcels to the Fregon.
It was quickly hijacked by politics, with the federal opposition calling for income management to be rolled out across the land, similar to the NT intervention model.
The heat was especially strong on the state’s Aboriginal affairs minister Grace Portolesi, who had already announced a major Indigenous affairs policy on food security two months prior.
The Red Cross largely retreated from the media glare. But Ms Symons says it’s important that context be placed back in the debate.
She says that what has been left out is the role of the Fregon residents themselves, who are helping to drive the programs in their own community. The Red Cross have two employees based in Fregon.
“(The program in Fregon) is very low key,” Ms Symons says. “It involves having some food in reserve for, and if, people run out of money, and that happens all across the state, not just in remote communities.
“There was a real willingness from the community to understand the issue a little bit more.
“We set up a community reference group involving local people, who are running and designing the program. We are collecting data on their behalf and when we are in a position to present it to them, they can tell us what they would like us to do with that data.
“The call on that program in Fregon has diminished over the last few weeks, people are already starting to find their own solutions.
“It’s very much a community development sort of approach and the community of Fregon is driving it, all we are really doing is providing support.”
Ms Symons says that the issue of food security is nothing new, but that it is complex.
“One issue is food supply, which at many times is not always sustainable.
“There’s the other issue of food access, and whether it is affordable and also whether there are healthy food choices available.
“Then there’s food utilization. How food gets used, are there places for food to be stored, do people understand and have the skills to cook and prepare food, do they understand what’s healthy and are they able to live on their budget?
“So the situation is very complex. I think in remote areas all three of these areas are quite problematic, and that’s no fault of the people living in those communities at all.
“What we are seeing currently is the strength and resilience of remote communities, which is absolutely incredible.”
Ms Symons says the Red Cross works closely with state and federal government agencies and other non-government organisations, including the key Anangu organisations in the state. She believes that the state government should be given more credit for their food security plan.
“The state government has worked very hard to really take this issue on board,” Ms Symons says. “Unfortunately, what the media did is they saw one tiny bit of the plan without seeing the whole.
“It’s actually very comprehensive and I know the minister and the state government are very keen to engage with all the key stakeholders, particularly the communities themselves, to bring everyone around the table to solve these issues which in 2011 should really be solvable in our country.
“I think there is a deep commitment from a federal and state level to do that and certainly (Minister Portolesi) has been very keen to listen and to hear all those different views.”
The Red Cross says it won’t support any form of compulsory model.
“We do understand that there are varied and conflicting views along that line (the NT compulsory income management model) but we are maintaining a very close interest and commitment to really understanding the views of people in the communities that will be impacted, and they have to be the centre of driving what they want to happen for themselves and their community.
“Our preference is that we won’t support something that is compulsory in nature. We believe there is much more impact if communities are driving the solutions themselves and things are taken on a voluntary basis.”