Food, Work and Sovereignty

Kiah Smith and Zoe Staines

Hunger in remote Australia

Although Indigenous[i] Australians have lived successfully off the Australian landscape for over sixty millennia, those living in post-colonial remote Australian communities now regularly experience hunger. Food insecurity is five to six times higher for Indigenous Australians than for other Australians and is at least partly determined by the affordability of food, which is in turn related to income and poverty (Davy 2016).

In line with the trajectory of capital-intensive industrialized agriculture in Australia following colonization, and the more recent neoliberal turn, food policy responses targeted at remote communities have been overwhelmingly market-based. They typically aim to enhance food access via government support of community grocery stores or by preventing social security income from being spent on non-food items. Such responses do not, however, tend to grapple with the critical importance of power and control over land, resources and time in driving hunger, nor the possible impacts of competing and/or incoherent policies. This is again being reinforced in the current Senate inquiry into remote food, whose terms of reference overwhelmingly frame the challenge of hunger as being an outcome of market failure and/or poor individual choice. However, by adopting a food sovereignty lens, and blending insights from the sociology of work and food, it is possible to shift attention to a more critical appraisal of some key structural factors also driving hunger in remote Australia.     

Shifting to a food sovereignty lens

Land and other resource ‘enclosures’ are central to the project of colonization, which dispossesses indigenous peoples and destroys culturally-appropriate local food systems. Colonization of the Australian landscape had the effect of clearing wide areas of what looked like grasslands to settlers but were in fact expansive fields containing ‘vegetables, fruits, and grain, as well as… smaller game’ (Kenny 2010, 179). As a result, connections between Indigenous peoples and traditional sources of food were (and are) frequently undermined.

This raises important questions about the food sovereignty of Indigenous Australians — understood as the rights of communities to define their own food systems. While food (and nutrition) security focuses on maximizing healthy food production and access, food sovereignty extends a deeper vision that ‘sees food as being integral to local cultures, closes the gap between production and consumption, is based on local knowledge and seeks to democratize the food system’ (Wittman, Desmarais and Wiebe 2010, 7). It is intimately linked with access to productive resources such as land, seeds and water, which has been (and continues to be) systematically disrupted by settler colonialism.

When considered in this context, market-based policy responses to the challenge of hunger in Australia frequently fall short. Indeed, such approaches fail to reckon with the fact that all food production-consumption activities in Australia occur on stolen lands (Mayes 2018). Other remote-focused social policies can also have compounding negative impacts, further undermining access to food, as well as some aspects of food sovereignty. For instance, Australia’s welfare-to-work or ‘workfare’ policy, the Community Development Programme (CDP) (2015-current), has served to exacerbate hunger in remote Australia (Altman 2018).  

Food under threat

Like workfare policies elsewhere (e.g. UK, USA), CDP focuses on ‘activating’ the unemployed through work-for-the-dole, training and appointments with third-sector job service providers, with the ultimate goal of achieving transitions into work. The Program applies only in remote Australia where structural unemployment has been long entrenched, leading to a churning of people through CDP and very few transitions into work. Around 80% of CDP participants identify as Indigenous and, for a range of reasons (e.g. language barriers), financial non-compliance penalties applied under the Program are incredibly high, leaving many participants with significantly reduced social security incomes. 

CDP interacts with food in remote Australia in a number of ways, which we illuminate here through excerpts from testimonies of Indigenous organizations, Indigenous councils, Members of Parliament and Indigenous community members with experience of CDP captured in federal parliamentary debates (Hansard 2014-2020) and in a recent government inquiry (Australian Senate Inquiry regarding The appropriateness and effectiveness of the objectives, design, implementation and evaluation of the CDP). The excerpts show that financial penalties under CDP drastically lower peoples’ incomes, thrusting individuals and families into situations of “real hunger” (Indigenous Senator), with frequent reports of people “not buying food” as a result of suspended payments (Non-Indigenous Senator). Higher base costs of food in remote communities means that, when penalties are applied, less money must stretch even further.

Reduced access to food has a range of flow-on effects for family, kin and children. For instance, children may be unwilling to attend school on “empty stomachs” (Non-Indigenous Minister) and their health, as well as the health of unborn babies, is also affected:   

[CDP has caused] increased food insecurity, with reports of young pregnant women going without meals for days at a time.

(Indigenous peak body organization)

These findings highlight the importance of coordinated policymaking around food and work: while policies that focus on improving the volume or quality of produce in community stores are important, CDP participants often have insufficient incomes to spend there. Here, a food sovereignty lens on policy coherence is useful to help shift our gaze towards issues of self-determination and power at the heart of how people access food.

Limits to self-provisioning

Where people cannot rely on stable incomes to purchase food, they must search elsewhere. But CDP makes it difficult to return to traditional homelands, where hunting/fishing may take place, with many receiving penalties for doing so:

CDP has gotten to a position where it is untenable in the bush, and a number of people have already been breached for some time…

(Indigenous Member of Parliament).

CDP-approved activities are also typically seen as being incompatible with First Nation’s peoples’ culture or preferences:

There is another community in my electorate where one of their [government-work] programs is learning to knit. These are traditional women who would much rather go out on country and wild harvest bush tucker … I can tell you now, in parts of the Northern Territory there is no way that you are going to be needing any knitwear…

(Indigenous Member of Parliament)

In some instances, CDP participants considered that it was “not worth the emotion and the anxiety levels” to re-engage with CDP (Indigenous Member of Parliament). Thus, some chose to remain disengaged, supplementing support from family and community with foods procured from homelands.

Local food provisioning – gathering bush tucker, hunting, fishing and, potentially, local farming – has the potential to supplement diets, as well as meet market demands for bush foods, depending on community needs and desires. Although food-related activities (e.g. food preparation, planting produce gardens) are sometimes part of work-for-the-dole under CDP, this is rare. Even so, while community control over small-scale, localized food activities is a key element in food sovereignty, food-related activities under work-for-the-dole must operate within the CDP framework and stop short of constituting a truly sovereign practice.

Ultimately, it is likely that work-for-the-dole focused on local food provisioning is incompatible with CDP’s strict (neoliberal) emphasis on transitions into paid work, which does not recognize or support productive labor beyond the formal economy. One member of an Indigenous organization touched on this, stating:

It’s also about understanding philosophically what it means to work, even when it comes to helping a community member or if someone has the imprimatur of the group to go out and hunt and bring back food… there’s the spiritual significance of then providing that to the family… sometimes it’s not viewed as work; it’s an honour. Then there’s the concept of working nine to five…

Beyond food markets, towards Indigenous sovereignty

By blending insights from the sociology of work and food, we are able to show how lack of coordination across food and social policies creates complex and negative impacts. For instance, contrary to political framing of the challenges of remote hunger, it is not just poor availability of produce in community stores that drives the issue. Lying at the heart of the challenge is the continued denial of Indigenous food sovereignty. Thus, efforts to improve food access in remote communities would do well to develop a revised version of food sovereignty reflexive of the Australian context; one that prioritizes Indigenous Australians’ direct engagement in and control over policy as well as productive resources. Greater control over policies affecting remote Indigenous communities — an issue that hinges on political sovereignty — might also result in greater coherence, removing workfare policies that undermine access to food and ultimately entrench poverty.   Ultimately, policymaking around work and food must address the broader structural disempowerment of Indigenous Australians that comes from the settler state’s denial of their political sovereignty. Within a broader agenda of decolonization, the redistribution of power is vital. It is unlikely that the hunger experienced in remote Indigenous communities will be alleviated unless these structural matters are addressed. 

Kiah Smith is a Research Fellow with the School of Social Science, University of Queensland. Her research in Sociology focuses on sustainability transformations in local and global food systems, with publications on food security and food justice, climate resilience, ethical trade, sustainable livelihoods, gender, green economy, financialisation and governance. Kiah previously worked with the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, has collaborated with NGOs in Australia and internationally, is a Future Earth Fellow, and sits on the editorial board of the International Journal of the Sociology of Agriculture and Food. She is currently the lead investigator on an ARC-funded DECRA study on ‘Fair Food Futures, Civil Society and the SDGs’.

Zoe Staines is a Research Fellow with the School of Social Science, University of Queensland. She previously held research and policy positions in the Queensland public sector and, most recently, in the not-for-profit sector, as a Senior Policy Officer and Manager of Research for an Indigenous organisation. Since completing her PhD in criminology, she has published in the areas of policing, social policy, and rural/remote crime and governance. She was recently awarded an ARC Discovery Early Career Researcher Award to further her work into remote community experiences of social policy and is also an Associate Editor of the Australian Journal of Social Issues.

[i] We use the term ‘Indigenous’ to refer to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the original inhabitants and sovereign owners of the land that is now called Australia. 

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