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'Social supermarket' experiment slashes grocery bills in Pilbara town as costs skyrocket

Tom Zaunmayr -

In a small, historic and largely Indigenous town 1500km from its nearest major city the steep rises in the cost of groceries is not an issue.

There are no local farms - the nearest agricultural region being 640km away - and no supermarket chains to speak of.

Nearby in Karratha a handful of fruit will set you back more than $10 and you won't get much spare change from $30 for a basic pub meal.

But in Ieramugadu (Roebourne), a new way of thinking has broken the supermarket system at a time the cost of a basket of groceries has never been higher across the nation.

Opened in December 2021, Ieramugadu Store Maya has proven a gamechanger for a town home to some of the most financially disadvantaged residents in Australia's economic engine room.

Garlbagu director Kevin Guinness, Woodside Karratha Gas Plant asset manager Breyden Lonnie and WA Upper House MP Peter Foster open Ieramugadu Store Maya in Roebourne.

The Ngarluma Yindjibarndi Foundation-backed, Garlbagu-operated Foundation Food store works with industry, business, government and non-profits to access products discounted for reasons ranging from labels which have been printed incorrectly or fruit which doesn't fit modern beauty standards of major supermarkets.

While this leads to savings in itself, residents can become members to access heavily-discounted and even free staple products.

It is the first of its kind in Australia and one other remote towns in northern Australia are already keeping a close eye on.

Garlbagu director Kevin Guinness said access to healthy food was a basic human right.

"It's really important that our community has a supermarket that provides groceries and good fresh food," he said.

"We also have been trying to find a way to help and support people who are struggling and need a hand up.

"Food is the foundation of healthy living, and access to it is a basic human right not a privilege."

By operating in this way Foundation Food is able to provide groceries at low or no cost in a social movement Garlbagu chief executive Bruce Jorgensen describes as "shopping without shame".

That is welcome relief for a town which has long struggled with disadvantage in the shadow of its wealthy neighbours.

The median weekly household income in Ieramugadu in 2021 was $1062. 30km west, Karratha's $3194 median income makes it one of the wealthiest towns in Australia.

Drilling down further on the newly-released Census data reveals Indigenous households are even worse off in Ieramugadu at $888, and have to stretch that budget to more than three people.

By comparison an Indigenous household in Karratha sits on an average weekly income of $2491.

Add in high fuel costs, insurance and power bills which bulge in the wet season from running aircons and there is rarely much left over to put quality food on the table.

Those costs hit businesses too, and were part of the reason the old supermarket closed in 2019, leaving Ieramugadu residents having to drive to nearby towns for groceries.

Mr Jorgensen said the store provided an alternative for residents relying on charity which left people feeling disempowered.

"These services can make people feel disempowered, ashamed and offer no dignity of choice when it comes to selecting foods for their family," he said.

Backers of the new store include the City of Karratha, Horizon Power, Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation, Mineral Resources, Yaandina, Brindle Group, Minbaringu Services, Sodexo and Woodside.

Woodside Karratha Gas Plant asset manager Breyden Lonnie said the company was proud to support the community-led initiative.

"To see something like this which is so impactful come together in such a well-put together form, you can tell it means a lot," he said.

"A lot of our people live in and are part of the community so we see part of our responsibility is to be a proud community partner and give back where we can.

"We see the fruits of that in development in Roebourne and we see that in people working with our business."

The formal opening of the store on Tuesday doesn't mark the end of the journey either - Garlbagu has grand plans to produce its own fresh food to further reduce prices and use food waste to create new industries in Ieramugadu.

There's also an advanced plan which could see the small town become home to fresher, better produce than whats available in the big supermarkets at major towns in the region.

Foundation Food project lead Abby Phillis said working with growers in WA's Mid West and changing supply chain issues would enable access to even fresher produce.

"The Mid West growers relationship though (the Department of Primary Industry and Regional Development) is going to be a real gamechanger," she said.

"We had (one tonne) of watermelons getting donated to us from growers in the NT which literally went right past the front door (to Perth) and drove back.

"I cant wrap my head around that, it has to change."

Ms Phillis said Foundation Food was open to talking with other north Australian towns considering a similar model.

Since opening in December the store has distributed more than six tonnes of donated food through its Secondbite partnership and gained 400 members, nearly half of the town's population.

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