In Memory of Judith Devine Walker OAM (1935-2014) by Helen Vidgen

I was in my local green grocer this weekend.  I love this place.  The manager is a 70 year old woman who has owned fruit shops with her husband all over Australia.  They take run down businesses, make them flourish and then sell them on.  She does this by tapping into the food needs to the local community.  She can sum ours up in a couple of sentences in a way no ABS data could.  She also deals directly with farmers wherever she can.  She was once a flower farmer and knows this will get them a better deal.  Because of this, you never know what she will have on special out the front because it’s whatever that farmer has a glut of.  This weekend it was beetroot.

I brought them home to make Judy Walker’s Queenslander Chocolate Cake whose key ingredient is beetroot, used to moisten the cake and allow you to use a lot less fat.  She also reduced the sugar.  She developed the recipe for a book we were writing at the then Australian Nutrition Foundation, and in response to the State of Origin Rugby League competition happening at the time.  It helped get good press for the book.  We sold them to teachers, naturopaths, mums, childcare centres, home economists, pharmacists, youth workers – all the people we mainly get our nutrition information from!  At the time, I had recently graduated from Nutrition and Dietetics and had come from my first year of working in hospitals where our diet sheets told diabetic patients to wash the syrup off canned beetroot and pat it dry in a paper towel before using it.  By contrast, Judy Walker was a celebrator of food.

Her food knowledge was incredibly comprehensive.  She worked with Barbara Harman, principal of Brisbane’s then premier cookery school to author several cookbooks including the Heart Foundation’s The Guide to Healthy Eating volume 1 and 2, Cooking for Few, Cooking for Plenty and Healthy Eating for your Heart.  Your hospital could or nursing home probably still has some recipes from these as they were widely used by dietitians in the 1980s and 1990s.  She contributed to many other publications including What food is that? edited by her good friend Jo Rogers and still the most comprehensive encyclopaedia of Australian foods.  They had worked together in the establishment of the Australian Nutrition Foundation which we know now as Nutrition Australia.  Both are honorary life members.  Having grown up in her parents’ small business during war time, Judy was a charming and clever business woman.  Her practice is particularly interesting to reflect on in our current environment of small government, to consider other ways of funding community and public health nutrition work.  At the cornerstone of this was the ability to establish networks, build strong and strategic partnerships, and knowing the value and cost of your work and contribution.

I began working for Judy in 1993 when the community and public health nutrition presence and investment in Queensland was minimal.  I loved hearing her stories of her time in Fiji.  She began working there in 1958 as nutritionist at the South Pacific Health Service.  She met her husband and raised her two daughters there, leaving in 1970.  In this sole nutrition position, she worked with local health workers to conduct a nutrition survey of the Cook Islands, worked with Dunedin University to gather data on the effects of westernisation on islander communities, and audited household and local food supply to gather evidence to promote the use of local foods, culminating in the development of food composition tables for South Pacific foods.   In the 1960s she taught nutrition at the Fiji School of Medicine.  She contributed to a UN food balance project, developing standard diets for all the ethnic groups to assist with forecasting future food supply requirements.

In 1996, in recognition of her work, Judy was awarded an Order of Australia Medal for services to community health through nutrition education.  Even into her retirement Judy remained active in food communities.  She became a member of the Slow Food movement.  She successful campaigned to have the bunya nut added to the international Arc of Taste which recognises and protects culturally and environmentally significant local foods.  Less than 20 Australian foods are listed.

I caught up with Judy at least once a year.  It was always over food.  Soon after she retired it was usually at her acreage home whose land was filled with edible (almost always native) plants.  I remember eating the produce of her cheese making course, a short black from her first coffee bean harvest, preciously saved for us, a native fruit I’d never tried before and always homemade bread.  More recently it was at my home or that of former colleagues.  I looked forward to hosting and her critique of my offerings.  The last time I saw Judy was at the 2014 DAA National Conference as the Lecture in Honour recipient.  She couldn’t believe all the fuss was about her.  I thank her for her influence on my career, her mentorship and her contribution not only to our profession but to the nutrition cause more broadly.  And I’ll celebrate this every time I roast, instead of wash, some beetroot.

I would like thank Christina Stubbs who presented the DAA Lecture in Honour for her assistance in preparing this article.

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