Is Australia's food culture unequally distributed?

Rebecca Huntley

Rebecca Huntley

Food culture in Australia has come a long way, writes social researcher Rebecca Huntley, but not necessarily for everyone.

My mother was 21 years old when Gourmet Traveller was launched. The Australian food scene then was alienating for a young Italian woman. Olives and pasta could be found in the supermarket, but were best left alone in favour of what could be grown or made by the family. Italian restaurants were mostly considered second rate. Dinner parties were all about prawn cocktails, roast beef and veg, trifle and after-dinner mints. The way we ate 50 years ago reflected the low status accorded certain European migrants like my mother.

Today spaghetti Bolognese is practically our national dish. We've waved goodbye to those days of canned asparagus, and thank Christ for that. There's much to celebrate - not just our lauded restaurants, chefs, winemakers and primary providers but also the transformation in the way we shop, cook and eat every day. In the midst of all this self-congratulation, however, it's not a bad idea to pause and consider who is being left out of our national smorgasbord

Hopefully in the next 50 years we'll see the starker inequalities in how we cook and eat addressed: the closing of the gender gap in the kitchen, perhaps, with more men cooking at home and more children involved in cooking things other than cupcakes; more women chefs staying in the trade longer; less exploitation of migrant kitchen workers, and a genuine clamp down on low-quality cooking courses marketed aggressively to foreign students. We need to worry about the human cost of the food we eat as much as we worry about whether it's organic or free-range.

Ours is a rapidly ageing population, and I worry about the quality of food eaten by older Australians in both private homes and in aged care. Living alone, regardless of age, is linked to a host of bad eating habits. As successive National Health Surveys have shown, you're more likely to eat less fruit and vegetables, for instance, if you live alone. Add to that the many health and practical problems associated with eating when you're older, such as lack of ppetite and difficulties with the physical tasks of food shopping and cooking. And that's without factoring in the financial stress of living on the pension.

In terms of older people living in aged care, most facilities have food prepared off-site and shipped in. In the course of research I've done on eating in aged care, I've met residents who live on crackers, biscuits and two-minute noodles - anything they can prepare in their room. The issue is not just the quality of the food, but the social context of the meal, too. If you don't have dementia, for instance, eating with people with dementia is confronting and lonely. The way older Australians eat shows us that cooking and food are primarily social activities. If the social context isn't right, it's hard to get people to cook well and eat well.

We might consider Australia to be the land of the fair go, but OECD statistics show we're not a fair nation. Social inequality in Australia is getting worse - extraordinary, given the decades of record economic growthin this country. There's a strong correlation between tight budgets and a limited meal repertoire. Poor suburbs tend to also be "obesogenic", with limited food retail and restaurant options; where healthy food is difficult to find and more expensive.

The status of Indigenous Australians is one of the many signs that we have a serious problem with fairness. We're so lucky to have local champions of indigenous food culture, such as Kylie Kwong and Clayton Donovan. In 50 years' time, it would be great to see indigenous ingredients used more widely in everyday cooking, for the growers and retailers of those foods to thrive. That said, the increasing use of finger limes in cocktails won't do much to address the chronic food-security issues in Indigenous Australian communities.

According to an Australian Institute of Family Studies report on food insecurity, 30 per cent of Indigenous adults report being worried about going without food on a daily basis, making them one of the most vulnerable groups in terms of access to food. In remote locations, food supply is often limited to a "general store" that is not always open and is often expensive, with a 26 per cent higher price of a "basket of food" in remote community stores compared with a Darwin supermarket.

Coupled with the high percentage of residents in remote communities earning a low income, Indigenous people must spend a greater percentage of their income on meals than non-Indigenous Australians. Much of this is spent on ready-made meals from fast-food outlets because that's what is available. One survey of almost 4,000 Indigenous homes in the Northern Territory found that only 38 per cent had facilities such as stoves, ovens, running water and adequate storage for food.

The future of Australian food will no doubt be fabulous for many of us. But will it be fair for all of us?

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