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Dinner With Aboriginal Dietician: Robyn Delbridge

by The E.A.T. Team

top photo robyn delbridge-20

ON THE MENU 
Sweet Potato Salad, Almond Lemon Butter Cake
ON THE GLOBE
Melbourne, Australia
ON THE TEAM
Robyn Delbridge, Aboriginal Dietician
After 16 days on the road driving up Australia’s east coast from Sydney to Brisbane, we waved goodbye to our Wicked rental van and hopped on a plane to Melbourne. We couchsurfed with perhaps the coolest group of people in the whole city. After learning about The Eat Team, our fearless Melbourne leader, Nathan, introduced us to his sister Robyn, a dietician for the aboriginal population in Victoria.

We met Robyn on a blustery winter’s day where she was finishing her shift at the Victorian Aboriginal Health Center and headed out together towards her home into the suburbs of Melbourne. We popped by the friendly local butcher before heading back to her place to cook.

Nathan and Robyn’s parents joined us for an evening chock full of incredible Australian cheese and wine and we picked Robyn’s brain together after a mega-meal of sweet potato salad and lemon butter cake.

We were fascinated to learn more about the aboriginal culture, and Robyn has an incredible firsthand look into the lives of the aboriginal population in Victoria. We learned about some of the effects that the trauma inflicted upon much of the aboriginal population by the Australian government in the very recent past, and how modern day Australia is trying to move forward in a positive direction.

We were fascinated to hear about some of the projects Robyn has undertaken through the Victorian Aboriginal Health Center, such as an original cookbook, running community kitchens, a radio show to educate people on food, a kids’ fitness program, and a diabetes awareness group. We were blown away by her efforts. Read on for her story.

I’m a Dietitian because I love food. I love people and I love food. If people are cooking then I’m pretty happy.

collage - robyn delbridge

What does a Dietitian do?
Lots of different things. We can work in community centers, hospitals,
privately, or in industry. Aboriginal health is a niche.

Did you always want to work with Aboriginals?
I wanted to work in food from the age of 16. Everyone I knew who was a chef
was hooked on speed to help them get through the long hours, so I went to
Uni instead to become a Dietitian. It was during my studies that I
discovered that I wanted to work with Aboriginal people.

You help them achieve what they want to achieve?
Yes, which is good but it can be really challenging because the Aboriginal
Health Service is raised up out of Aboriginal people not getting adequate
health care from hospitals and GP’s. They advocated to the Government for
years and years to start their own health services. The one in Sydney was
the first, Melbourne is the second.

How long ago was this?
40 years next year.

Everyone can be healthier than they are but no one is ever going to be perfect.

It’s a fairly recent thing then?
Well, Aboriginal people only got the vote in 1969. Before that they were
counted as animals. The board of directors of the Aboriginal Health Service
are voted in by the wider community, all of the managers are Aboriginal and
about 80% of our staff. Obviously when you need the expertise, for example
doctors, there are plenty of Aboriginal doctors but there’s more that aren’t
so you have to hire other people as well.

How do you find your clients?
The Health Service is part of the community, it’s the heart of it and is
owned by them. People just know about it.

Is it free for people to get involved?
Yes, totally free.

Is it Government funded?
Yes, along with other organizations. We get Government funding for specific
things. When we wrote a cook book last year we got $8,000 from the local
council and this year got another $16,000 from a foundation to reprint it.

What’s the cook book about?
Oh, it was really fun! There’s a lot of cook books made for people in
Western Australia but when I used them here people said, ‘That’s really
great, but they’re not from here!’ We wanted our own and ownership of ours
so we wrote them. We invited the community from the whole of Victoria to
submit their favorite family recipes on a budget, plus we put in a few of
our own, and we wrote lunchbox ideas and fun sandwich fillings. Some of it
has a traditional twist and some of it is just healthier versions of meals
that are really easy to cook on a budget. The challenge in Melbourne is that
not many Aboriginal people actually eat traditional food because they tend
to eat what everyone else does. Whereas, up North, in Western Australia, and
parts of Queensland people eat traditional foods all of the time. For us
it’s part of peoples identity but it’s not part of their everyday.

What was your role in it?
We had a project manager that I worked alongside and checked for
healthiness. We cooked all of the recipes and took photos of them.

Is it available to look at anywhere?
Well, it was for the community so we gave them away. We printed off
1,000 of the first edition, which we gave away. Then got the money to print
2,000 copies, which we want to give away, and also make available to sell to
other organizations. We’re in the middle of editing for edition 2.

What are the Community Kitchens that you run?
It’s groups of people who come together with a facilitator, who is usually a
volunteer. We meet weekly and cook. The principal is that participants put
in for the amount of serves that they want, so if you just want to put in
for your own lunch it might be $2, or if you’re wanting to take some home it
might be $10. Then we design what to cook and go shopping together and cook
it all up. We were doing it a little bit differently as we were paying the
facilitator to provide employment and we were paying for the food. We ran
those for two years. There was a young peoples group for kids that had
dropped out of school. We had a Dads group who went on to start their own
company doing catering for events. Then we did a Mums group too. I oversaw
all three of these kitchens and they all got opportunities to cook for
different community events and we did the food handlers safety
qualifications with them. It went really well. It was really intense but
really good. There’s still positive talk about it now but the funding we had
wasn’t going to be renewed so it stopped.

We invited the community from the whole of Victoria to
submit their favorite family recipes.

How about your radio program?
Yeah, that was really fun! We did a program on the local indigenous radio
station with the breakfast show host. He also worked for my organization and
he said to come along. Every Monday morning we had a different theme. We’d
talk about nutrition and how to cook. We had a recipe that we spoke about
which then went on the website where people could download it. It was mixed
media, which we hadn’t ever done before but it meant we could track how many
hits the recipe page was getting, and it got heaps every week! We were able
to do surveys online and [due to the radio show] people actually made
changes. More fruit, less soft drink. Anthony, the host was really cool as
he knew nothing about the topic and so he asked such good questions. Usually stupid ones that no
one would ever dare ask but everyone thinks, but if you’ve never cooked you
wouldn’t know the answers to them. Things like, ‘Oh, I didn’t know an onion
was a vegetable!’ One time we were talking about salt and how it raises your
blood pressure, and he said, ‘So, if you’re in the ocean and you drink the
sea water, does that mean your blood pressure will go up?’ If you’re in the
ocean and you’re drinking the water you might be drowning, in which case
your blood pressure would definitely go up! …And then from the salt as
well! He wasn’t even being smart and sometimes I could see how it could
apply. Unfortunately he passed away.

The radio host?
Yeah, it was really sad. He was only 44 or something.

Another Aboriginal person dying extremely young…
Yes. The station lost their manager, their breakfast host and their most
popular person.

Could you tell us about circus too?
There’s a company called Westside Circus. (www.westsidecircus.org.au) They
do social circus dealing with confidence skills and fitness. We play lots of
healthy eating related games with kids. For example, we do what used to be
called ‘Sausage rolls’ as you’d lay out and roll down the mat, now we call
it the ‘carrot roll.’

Is it kids from an Aboriginal school?
They’re preschoolers from families that go to Aboriginal play groups.

Are there any other projects that you’re working on at the moment?
We have Diabetes Club, which is a support and education group for people
with Type 2 Diabetes. It’s every fortnight for the whole year, most of the
groups are every week for six weeks but ours is all year.
People kind of ‘do life’ together so that’s pretty cool. Last week we did
label reading, which is super important. Breakfast cereals was the example
so every one had a different one and we went through the nutritional
information panel and wrote the ones with the best energy or fat content. It
taught people how to compare the foods they eat at home. One time I brought
in sugar-free candy, sweetened with Xylitol.

Is that good for you?
It’s like Diet Coke.

Is that good for you?
It’s still a ‘sometimes food’ but it’s better for you than Coke! It’s
sweetened with aspartame.

Is Aspartame better?
Yes.

We’ve heard that if you have too much of it it’s harmful, is that true?
It’s the most heavily investigated food additive in history. It’s still
considered safe for human consumption. However, people still believe that
it’ll give you lung cancer, brain tumors, etc.

Why, because it’s not sugar?
Yes, but we eat the most ridiculous additives! I especially love it when
people say they won’t drink Diet Coke while smoking a cigarette!
I’m like, you know there’s all sorts of horrible things in your cigarettes?!

What’s the difference between a Dietitian and a Nutritionist?
A Dietitian is more highly qualified. The issue is that people can do a 6
week course and call themselves a Nutritionist. Although, as of last year,
there’s an Accredited Nutritionist Qualification, which is more like a
degree. A Dietitian has either done a 4 year degree or a masters and we can
do what’s called Medical Nutrition Therapy, which is therapy for diseases
and conditions.

What is your food philosophy?
Wow, that’s very Master Chef! I’m a Dietitian because I love food. I love
people and I love food. There are other Dietitians that come from different
perspectives, they might love science. If people are cooking then I’m pretty
happy. Everyone can be healthier than they are but no one is ever going to
be perfect. Some Dietitians get worried about eating food in front of
people.

I don’t get worried about
getting too bogged down in the detail, I just meet people where they’re at
and help them with the thing that they need at that time.

They feel that they’re not allowed to eat?
Yeah. In my job, we cook and eat together. I have clients that bring me
doughnuts to appointments! I think they figure that if I worry about my own
weight then I don’t have to worry about theirs. I don’t get worried about
getting too bogged down in the detail, I just meet people where they’re at
and help them with the thing that they need at that time.

Would you say that when you’re cooking with somebody it makes them more
willing to talk about their problems?
Yeah!

And obviously it’s not always about food, it’s a buffer to lead on to more
things?
Yes. A Dietitian should have a co-degree in counseling! It’s amazing what
comes out when you’re just talking about food with clients. It’s more about
the psychology of food. People eat for a reason and obviously hunger is one
of them, but there’s so many more. Especially the dieting mentality of women
who are desperate to weigh themselves, they are so much more than just a
number on the scales! Whatever they tell you you have to just go with it.
Sexual abuse, rape, assault, domestic violence, being removed from your
family, being in foster care, being food deprived, all sorts of horrible
things. A lot of these people are victims of the Child Removal Program,
which was running in Australia until the 1980′s.

Where did they put them?
In white families.

That’s shocking! It’s interesting that anytime you have a problem it effects
every area of your life and obviously that would include food.
Exactly. If there’s been a change in someones eating, there’s got to have
been a reason. Anything from moving house to a relationship breakdown,
there’s pressure and anxiety. You have to keep in mind that I don’t work
with the majority of Australia, I work with an extreme pocket.

What’s your favorite ‘sometimes food’?
Lemon meringue pie, Atomica Caffé Lemon and Pistachio cake
(www.atomicacoffee.com.au), pancakes with lemon butter.

What’s your favorite ‘everyday food’, bananas?
I hate bananas! They’re really good for you and I recommend them to lots of
people but I hate them. I’d say that bell peppers and pumpkin are my favorites.

Are there certain foods that people often assume are good for them when
really they’re not?
Nutri-Grain.

A Dietitian should have a co-degree in counseling! It’s amazing what comes out when you’re just talking about food with clients. It’s more about
the psychology of food. People eat for a reason and obviously hunger is one
of them, but there’s so many more.

Oh, like the bars?
It’s an Australian cereal. It’s advertised as this amazing food for energy.

It’s just sugar, right?
It’s just sugar! Muesli bars are another one, it’s just sugar and oats.

Are they better than Mars Bars?
Marginally.

bottom photo robyn delbridge-11

For more information, please visit:

http://www.vahs.org.au/

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