Groceries Are 39% More Expensive For Communities In Remote Areas & The Govt Needs To Do Something

I am a chronic complainer about supermarkets, with the mounting cost of each weekly grocery shop slowly inching me towards a la Bob Katter-pig suit style stunt to protest my local’s $9/kg Roma tomatoes. 

We know the cost of living is hitting us hard all across the country, with an estimated 3.3 million people in Australia living below the poverty line

Through periods of high inflation and stagnating wages, many Australians are doing it bloody tough struggling through food insecurity, energy poverty, deferred healthcare and housing insecurity. This can look like not being able to afford to eat three times a day, limiting electricity or showering, forgoing medical treatment to ensure basic necessities and the ongoing rental crisis.

However, whatever pinch we’re feeling, remote communities — and particularly, First Nations mob — have been feeling it worse for much longer.

“​​It actually makes me sick when I sit there and watch the news and all I hear about is the cost of living crisis,” Poppy Lever, manager of Warlayirti Artists based in Wirrimanu remote community, told Crikey and Indigenous Community Television.

“Your current crisis is what we’re used to. In community, it’s now three times that.”

People living in remote communities pay 39% more than city shoppers on average – the highest average cost of food in Australia and around 150,000 First Nations people, in more than 1,200 remote and very remote communities, live with tenuous food security. 

Many remote First Nations communities in the Northern Territory and South Australia are paying almost twice as much for the same everyday household goods sold in metropolitan areas. 

A Crikey and Indigenous Community Television investigation found that:

  • Unleaded petrol was between $3.00 and $3.75 per/L.
  • Always Fresh olive oil 500ml at $17.10, in cities it’s $9.00
  • Western Star supersoft spreadable butter for $10.30, normally $7.00
  • Kraft cheese singles for $8.30, compared to $4.25. 
  • Two kilos of SunRice medium grain white rice cost $10.10, normally $6.70.
  • Nescafe Blend 43 (medium roast) 500g was $40, which is regularly priced at $18 
  • Dilmah extra strength black tea 100 pack for $11.50, compared to $8.80. 

Despite government data being limited in this area, the reporting available does suggest that the cost of living in remote communities is outpacing the rest of the country but this has been the case for a long time.

In 2020, there was a Federal parliamentary inquiry into food pricing and food security in remote Indigenous communities — the third major review into the issue since 2009. 

In this enquiry, the committee heard reports of baby formula that cost $50 per 900 grams, nappies that were $50 a packet, towels costing almost  $30 for the cheapest option, a 340 gram container of honey priced at almost $20, and mince that cost $42 a kilogram.

One of the major recommendations from this inquiry was to create a national price monitoring system through the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, to increase transparency and data on the issue. This recommendation was noted by the then Morrison government, but never acted upon. 

Four years later, and the situation for First Nations people in remote communities is even more critical.

“The average cost of our dinner (just dinner, not including breakfast or lunch) is roughly $200/250 and that’s for one night,” D*, a young mum in Borroloola who has had to sacrifice food for herself in order to feed her son, tells PEDESTRIAN.TV.

“It’s to feed a family of five. [The] cost of basic food like bread, milk, tin beef etc. is too much. In our household we on average cook a massive dinner to make up for the fact we didn’t eat the entire day.”

This situation is then further exacerbated in remote communities during extreme weather events. “After the flooding in Borroloola, certain store managers raised the prices of fresh produce,” D continues. “The cost of fresh meat went up rapidly, for six average-sized lamb shoulder chops it’s roughly $25 and up. Families can’t afford fresh meat. Even a 1.25L bottle of coke is $7.60.” 

Benny, a young man from Arnhem Land, says that the stress put on families in remote communities is “massive”. 

“A lot of families do fishing or hunting for food but the price of fuel, which never goes below $2.80 a litre, and seasonal changes limit that,” he tells PEDESTRIAN.TV. “People can only access traditional hunting grounds five to six months of the year depending on how much rain they’ve had that wet season.”

From Benny in Arnhem Land, a Wiltshire fry-pan that normally goes for $30 is being sold for $78.49 (Image source: supplied)

He pays on average between $300 and $400 a week for just 15 items, and that the financial stress “affects the mental health and wellbeing of families in community”. He describes average prices of bolognese mince being at $15 to $20 for a kilo, $10 for two litres of milk, $6 a litre for lactose-free milk and thin steaks being $8 to $12 for a single steak. 

The Albanese government has announced plans to address food costs and start public consultation on a national strategy to reduce food costs, but that won’t be in place until 2025. 

“With each passing day, more and more Australians grapple with how they’re going to make ends meet, but First Nations communities across the country have felt the sting of price gouging for years,” says GetUp! Australia.

The political organisation is collecting signatures for a petition, urging the government for immediate action to ease the pressure off regional and remote families struggling with cost of living. 

The causes for rising prices in remote communities are a mixture of increasingly high freight charges to deliver stock to remote locations, seasonal changes such as wet season rains blocking access to communities and expensive overhead for general stores. The solutions needed to address these issues have to be place-based, informed by research and, most importantly, have to actually be implemented – not left to be ignored and die the death of many previous recommendations. 

But there are some Australians like Tony Abbott, who said in 2015 that he didn’t want to fund First Nations people in remote communities because they are “lifestyle choices”. As asserted by First Nations advocates at the time, this framing ignores the connections between First Nations people and place, including the role of settler-colonialism in facilitating dispossession of land and displacement of people. 

Some remote communities exist on the residents’ traditional homelands, where they maintain a cultural obligation to maintain that Country. Other remote communities are culturally diverse due to the creation of missions where displaced First Nations people were forced to live or near cattle stations where the labour of their ancestors were exploited by pastoralists. No matter the way people have come to live in these communities – they all hold connections to family history, Country, culture and identity. 

“Just move to a city” undermines the rights of First Nations people of connection to Country, continuation of culture and the ability to self-determine their future on their own terms. 

The cost of living crisis has been the lived reality of many First Nations people for years. They deserve solutions and action from the government — they deserve to afford to live just like the rest of Australia does.