Go to Top

Dympna Leonard

Dympna LeonardI will begin this profile, which outlines my nutrition career, and the great opportunities and experiences which I have had, by revealing that my career has just come to an abrupt halt. With all my Queensland Health public health nutrition colleagues, I have been made redundant. But let me begin at the beginning…..

I was born in 1951 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. My parents, both from small farms, had more formal education than was usual for people of their background. They shared a love of literature and learning. Our house was crowded, full of books – and children! I have six brothers and one sister.

As a child I was a fussy eater, particularly disliking the typically Irish over-cooked, mashed vegetables. This fired my interest in nutrition. I wanted to learn how I had grown up apparently healthy, despite avoiding all cooked vegetables. Studying nutrition in England in the 70s, I realised the nightly raw carrot that my mother insisted we ate, probably saved me from scurvy! My flatmates cooked ratatouille for me – the first cooked vegetables which I enjoyed.

During my final year, I researched the English wartime food rationing system. I reviewed the then government policies, and interviewed women about their struggle to feed families on the limited allowances of sugar, butter, meat and eggs. During the vacation, I chatted with my parents about my findings. My father’s eyes glowed with remembered pleasure. ‘Rationing’, he said ‘that was the first time in our lives that we had meat to eat every week’.

That conversation has stayed with me as a reminder of inequities in food distribution and access. For people in more affluent areas of the UK, the ration era was a time of scarcity. For people who had grown up in poorer areas, as my parents had, the same rations represented food affluence.

My first international work was in Papua New Guinea, where people in many areas enjoyed ‘subsistence affluence’. But in the highland fringe areas where I worked, depleted soils and deforestation meant a limited diet and poor nutrition and health of mothers and young children especially. I learnt about early childhood nutrition, growth assessment and the interaction of nutrition and infection. I became an ‘accidental’ Australian, as I met my Australian husband in Papua New Guinea. Now we live in northern Queensland in Australia.

European settlement of Australia had many devastating impacts on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander first peoples, including loss of traditional food systems. These provided a diverse, local and nutritious diet, required physical activity and drew on cultural knowledge and expertise. Government and missions provided rations instead. Unlike the British wartime system, designed to provide adequate nutrients, the choice of ration foods was determined by the long supply routes: tinned corned beef, white flour and white rice, sugar, tea – and tobacco – all basically non-perishable. This change of diet was the basis of the current epidemic of diabetes and other chronic diseases.

In modern times, remote community Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people still enjoy traditional foods when they can – fish, crabs and shellfish, turtle, dugong and wild pig, fruit bats and wallaby – and in the Torres Strait, traditional garden foods. But life in settled communities means that most food is now purchased from stores and takeaways. The range of healthy food choices in remote stores has increased in the past two decades, but so also has the range of nutritionally poor foods and high sugar soft drinks. The cost of healthy food choices is still a barrier for people who are among the poorest in Australia.

In 1992 I joined the Queensland Health tropical public health unit, and the public health nutrition program began. We worked in partnerships with stores, schools, health services and others to improve access to healthy food choices, to promote healthy eating, good nutrition in pregnancy, lactation and early life, healthy childhood growth and healthy adult weight. We secured positions for Indigenous team members and supported them to add formal qualifications in nutrition to their cultural expertise. In 2007, after fifteen years as director, I was take on a different role, working in partnership with the Fred Hollows Foundation on the early childhood nutrition and anaemia prevention program, which combines early life nutrition promotion strategies with the use of the multi-micronutrient supplement, Sprinkles Plus.

But now the new state government has decided to abolish the Queensland Health public health nutrition program, among other public sector cuts, despite the recent Queensland chief health officer identifying overweight and obesity as the single greatest threat to future health of the people of this state – and poor diet as the major underlying factor. All of my nutrition colleagues, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, have been made redundant. On a personal level, this is an opportunity for me to spend more time with my grandchildren – and to make a start on my PhD. But I grieve for my colleagues, for the loss of their careers and the devaluation of their expertise. Equally I grieve for the impact this decision will have on the health and nutrition of the Indigenous people of north Queensland. Australian governments have committed to ‘close the gap’ between the health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non-Indigenous Australians. This decision will have the opposite effect of further widening that gap