Healing bodies, healing Country

Harnessing a passion for nutrition to create positive change
Native grains have healing potential. These gratifying grasses are not only a fantastic food source that could lower chronic disease rates, but could also have environmental and cultural benefits for the communities where they grow.

Dawn breaks over fields of native millet in Narrabri, Gamilaraay Country.

"Narrabri is just like you imagine. It’s flat and expansive, and you get these amazing huge skies. We went out at dawn to one of the properties, and on one side was a settled, lush field of native grains and this beautiful sunrise, and on the other side was the bare earth, ready for cotton planting. We weren’t far out in Country, but you get a sense of how ancient it is - you get a chance to feel connected, to feel grounded. I don’t have that opportunity often in my life.”

Jackie Vidor (BAppSc ’20, MND ’22) never expected to be standing on that road in Narrabri, alongside University of Sydney researchers Hannah Binge and Associate Professor Kim Bell-Anderson. Having graduated from a Bachelor of Arts some 30 years before, she enrolled at the University of Sydney in a Bachelor of Applied Science in 2015, followed by a Master of Nutrition and Dietetics in 2021. Her studies brought her in contact with Kim, who was her then‑lecturer.

Kim was pleasantly surprised by Jackie’s fervent enthusiasm for nutrition, recommending extra reading and striking up conversations outside of class. One topic piqued Jackie’s interest: Kim’s dream of exploring the potential of Australian native grains to improve Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ health outcomes.

Kim and Jackie first met as teacher and student, before starting their native grains collaboration.

“There are so many positives to native grains,” Kim explains. “Minimal input, superior photosynthetic machinery for higher yield, and they’re great for carbon capture. They’re perennial, so they live 30 years, and the roots go down more than a metre underground, which helps prevent soil erosion.”

The health benefits, too, are clear. Native grains – once a staple food for First Nations Peoples – are gluten-free, and high in fibre, protein, zinc, and iron.

Preliminary results show that a 10 percent substitution of native grain flour for whole wheat flour will lower the blood glucose result by 30 percent. In a country where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are disproportionately affected by chronic diseases, have disproportionately reduced life expectancies, and disproportionately enjoy less access to nutritious food, native grains have the potential to make transformational changes to the health landscape.

Jackie comes from a family where helping others is part of the fabric of life: her grandparents Loti and Victor Smorgon supported community focused causes in healthcare, arts, and culture throughout their lifetime.

Hearing about the University of Sydney’s native grains project, Jackie knew she wanted to get involved as a donor.

Grains like Australian native millet have the potential to help lower rates of diabetes and other chronic illnesses.

“I saw it had the potential to be really far-reaching, that the research could help not only the First Nations community in an immediate sense, but also the wider community. It can help us return to eating in the way nature intended.”

Jackie’s substantial gift to the native grains project has expanded its scope, with Kim noting that it has become more of a process of discovery: “it’s given me the freedom and power to action the research agenda and mitigate barriers. Jackie says that I’m her mentor, but she’s my champion.”

This freedom means that the team can investigate the properties of multiple grains instead of just one, and follow the most promising paths of enquiry. Funding allows Kim to purchase expensive equipment, like threshing machines to help easily harvest the grain. It has enabled her to hire people from the local community to conduct studies on the ground, including Hannah Binge, a research assistant based in Narrabri. Most importantly, Jackie’s support has enabled the research to be meaningfully co-designed with the Aboriginal people at the centre of this work.

The native grains project brings together Jackie’s interest in nutrition with her passion for effecting positive change.

Hannah, a Gamilaraay woman, speaks with passion about the healing potential, not just of native grains, but of the return to traditional foods and methods of nutrition.

“For some of our mob who haven’t had the opportunity to be exposed to parts of our culture like native grains because of colonisation, it reinforces a sense of identity and reconnecting. Personally I see it as a holistic thing. Being on Country and doing old fella things is healing – mentally, physically and spiritually – let alone for land and Country. These grains carry a lot of old Dreamtime stories too, they have a lot of significance. They’re not just a grain, not just a commodity.”

Hannah is vital to the success of the project, working with communities in and around Narrabri to study land management, cultivation, and food product development. She also undertakes outreach, surveying local Aboriginal people on what questions they most want answered with this research – whether this involves human trials, or lab-based work to determine the bio-availability of nutrients in the grains.

For Kim, the grains represent something beyond a nutritious staple food. “I’ve been hearing the word ‘healing’ a lot. It’s not just the physical. It’s the social, the cultural, the economical, the mental healing. Healing the soil, healing the environment, healing the people, healing the cultures.”

Kim and Hannah’s research has fostered new opportunities to work closer with the Gamilaraay community. The aim is for a group of First Nations knowledge-holders who are elders in the community to participate in the co-design of this and other native grain projects now underway at the University of Sydney.

“I think we’re seeing a real change in the landscape, and co-design is now advocated for in all health research, anywhere it’s possible,” says Kim. “It’s not only First Peoples; end-users and patients must be involved in the design process of research so that the benefits come back to them.”

As a volunteer on the project, Jackie has seen for herself how her gift is making a difference. “It’s been so fulfilling,” Jackie observed. “It’s reciprocal, I get back in terms of what I’m learning. And I think if you have the capacity to fund a project that can benefit so many people and be aligned with your interests, then go for it, because it really is rewarding.”

For Hannah, the resilience of the grains embodies the people who have cultivated and been nurtured by them for tens of thousands of years: “I’d like people to know that it’s still out here, and the culture is starting to be woken up again. There will be that ripple effect, the health benefits that come out of it. But it’s bringing back that health to the Country as well.”

Written by Chloe Pryce for the donor publication. Photography supplied and by Stefanie Zingsheim.

6 December 2023

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