Budding green thumbs till red soil to stop the rot


Link to article in The Australian.

Children in the West Australian outback town of Leonora are about to make radical change to the way their town gets its food.

The desert centre 830km northeast of Perth will grow its own produce – part of a quiet national movement to change Australia’s response to the dearth of fresh, healthy and affordable food in remote communities.

It is a program run by Food Ladder, a not-for-profit which has previously put in place agritech systems in some of the harshest environments in the world, including in Bhutan and India.

In Katherine, in the Northern Territory, Indigenous people invited Food Ladder to their town in 2019 and have led the rollout of the scheme to seven schools in the area since then.

Mark Cameron, a local Indigenous man, runs the program in that region and – with students – is currently harvesting blue pumpkin, bok choy and Papua New Guinea beans, used in stews.

“One of the main things I like to see is the kids feel proud of what they have built,” he said.

Mr Cameron said it was the old ladies – the Banatjarl Strongbala Wimun Grup – who spread word across the territory and beyond that growing food was working. That’s when Food Ladder began fielding requests from Indigenous communities where many children were said to be existing on sugary, salty, packaged foods.

The most recent parliamentary inquiry into the price and quality of food in remote stores was the third in 11 years. It heard evidence that long delivery distances meant the shelf life of fresh vegetables was often as short as two days once they reached a store, making them lower in nutritional content and an unappealing purchase.

The Australian last year reported fresh food in some remote north Queensland communities was three times more expensive than in city supermarkets, with tomatoes selling for $9.49/kg on Thursday Island compared to $3/kg at Woolworths.

While an increase to food subsidies has been proposed to address affordability, Food Ladder chief executive Kelly McJannett said it was still unclear why people would buy fruit and vegetables at any price if they were close to rotting.

Her organisation is attempting to establish 20 more solar-powered greenhouses across remote Australia by the end of 2022.

It is far more than a network of kitchen gardens, the organisations says, because communities can use the systems to become self-sufficient, growing fresh, nutritious food all year round.

Each garden is tied to classroom science lessons, each community owns and manages its own scheme and work-for-the-dole participants are the staff.

Leonora, population 560, will be the next community to take ownership of a greenhouse after students from the local school won a video competition.

Jet Butson, a Year 9 student, shot and edited the entry, a montage of younger students watering watermelon seeds and talking about their efforts to grow vegetables. Lummell Harris, 10, shows a tray of seedings in an office and sprays them with water, saying: “Right now we don’t have a greenhouse but we do have a storage area where we put our plants in”.

At the Leonora school, where 80 per cent of enrolled students are Indigenous, principal Bridget Lafferty said the children were thrilled to learn they had literally earned their own greenhouse.

“I see learning opportunities on all different levels,” she said.

But Liberal MP Julian Leeser, who chaired the parliamentary committee, said that local food production would only go some of the way to solving the problem of a lack of affordable fresh produce.

“Our committee heard very mixed views about market gardens and similar initiatives – they are great when they work but they aren’t a silver bullet,” he said. “If the community doesn’t feel ownership … it inevitably fails. There are also huge challenges in getting these schemes to the sort of scale required to feed a community.”


Paige Taylor is from the West Australian goldmining town of Kalgoorlie and went to school all over the place including Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory and Sydney’s north shore. She has been a reporter since 1996. She started as a cadet at the Albany Advertiser on WA’s south coast then worked at Post Newspapers in Perth before joining The Australian in 2004. She is a three time Walkley finalist and has won more than 20 WA Media Awards including the Daily News Centenary Prize for WA Journalist of the Year three times.