Having adequate food is a basic human right. But according to the Foodbank Hunger Report 2022, 21% of Australian households are experiencing severe food insecurity (meaning they have run out of food due to financial limitations and have gone entire days without eating). Indigenous people, low-income earners, young people and single-parent households take the cake (albeit not literally) as the worst groups affected. Although food insecurity is often associated with homelessness or ‘on the dole’, 54% of households experiencing food insecurity have at least one member doing paid work, and 30% of people with mortgages have experienced food insecurity in the past year.
The issue of food insecurity was brought before the Australian parliament recently during their Inquiry into ‘the extent and nature of poverty in Australia’. One of the key takeaways from this inquiry is that there is a clear need for the Australian Government to step in and make sure that vulnerable Australians are food secure despite factors like rising food prices and insufficient wage growth.
According to the United Nations, “a person is food insecure when they lack regular access to enough safe and nutritious food for normal growth and development and an active and healthy life. This may be due to unavailability of food and/or lack of resources to obtain food”. But food insecurity isn’t just about whether or not there is food on someone’s plate – it is also about what type of food is available and whether it is nutritious. People experiencing food insecurity lack the money for healthy food, which increases the risk of developing chronic illnesses like diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
The causes of food insecurity are wide and varied. According to the Foodbank Hunger Report 2022, 64% of households cited increased/high cost of living as a reason why they couldn’t meet their household food needs. Australia is experiencing record all-time high inflation – 7.8% in December 2022, the highest in over 30 years. Add to this below-average wage growth (wages are set to fall back 15 years in terms of value, which the Australian Institute refers to as an ‘awful collapse of living standards’), high household rent and energy bills and inadequate Government support payments, and it’s no surprise that people are struggling.
The impacts on Australia’s food security don’t stop there. There is also the Ukraine-Russia war (which has impacted the availability and cost of fuel and fertiliser), the leftover supply chain issues brought on by the pandemic, and the effects of natural disasters (like flooding, fires and droughts, which damage crops, kill livestock and disrupt transport). All of these food system shocks have a compounding effect on our food systems – but Australia is still one of the most food-secure nations in the world, and there is more than enough food to go around. If we have the right systems in place, that is.
The exact data regarding food insecurity in Australia is unknown because Australia has insufficient and outdated means of collecting data regarding food security (or lack thereof). According to the Household Food Security Data Consensus 2022, other high-income countries like Canada and the USA regularly monitor the severity of food insecurity. Australia, on the other hand, is relying on outdated, 10-year-old data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics at a national level that can’t respond to rapidly changing contexts (like the pandemic or the current ‘cost of living crisis’ that has resulted from rising inflation and insufficient real wages).
Most of the real data we have about food insecurity in Australia comes from charities like Foodbank, who have had to fill this knowledge gap via their ‘Australian Hunger Reports’. The lack of data on food insecurity makes it difficult for Australian policymakers to grasp the extent of the hunger problem or to come up with meaningful solutions to solve it.
As is highlighted in the Foodbank Submission in response to the Senate inquiry into the extent and nature of poverty in Australia, there is also no cohesive federal policy platform underpinning the goal of individual food security in Australia. The dominant approach to addressing food insecurity in Australia is to provide emergency food relief via charitable organisations. But the problem is these charities are underfunded, under-resourced, and unable to keep up with the increasing demand for assistance. All three of these charities are calling on the Federal Government to address historic underfunding amid the rising level of demand for food.
“How many more people need to be hungry before this issue gets attention? Most of the charities we support do not have enough food to meet demand, and we still have people 600 on the waiting list.”OzHarvest’s Founder and CEO, Ronni Kahn AO
As data from Foodbank shows, last year, 1.3 million children lived in severely food insecure households. But the Government only allocated just over $2 million dollars to the food relief sector. That is less than $2 per child for the year. And that doesn’t even factor in the hundreds of thousands of adults also experiencing food insecurity. To tackle this discrepancy, Foodbank, OzHarvest and SecondBite are calling on the Government to invest $45 million a year into food relief.
“We are seeing more and more everyday Australians reach out for help. These are people with jobs, double incomes, and mortgages. On a typical day, half a million households are struggling to put food on the table and we know only 306,000 households access food relief. This is a gap that is growing, and we need federal support to fill it.”Foodbank Australia CEO, Briana Casey
Lack of funding aside, relying on charities to feed the poor is the government’s failure to address and mitigate the root causes, depth and breadth of food insecurity. Not only do these charities have to turn people away because they can’t meet the demand (Foodbank has experienced a 90% increase in the demand for their services, compared to 2011), but since they rely on donations and surplus from supermarkets and other food manufacturers, they can’t provide a consistently wholesome and healthy diet to those in need. Charities are a beacon of community support, hope and care – but they can also be viewed as a testament to the failure of public authorities to deliver social programs that mitigate poverty and food insecurity.
The solutions to this food insecurity crisis are many and varied. According to Foodbank’s Submission, there are multiple things the Australian Government can do to address and prevent food insecurity – and poverty as a whole. One of their top recommendations is that the Australian Government develop a long-term, whole-of-Government strategy to address food security in Australia. They also recommend an increase in income support payments, more funding for food relief and a better standard of food measurement data. You can view the complete list of Foodbank’s recommendations here.
The causes of food insecurity are complex – but one of the key causes is the increased cost of living. As inflation rises and real wages fall, even more Australians will become vulnerable to food insecurity. As the charities on the front lines have shown with their data and first-hand experience, there is a clear need for the Government to address the root causes of food insecurity, commit to regularly monitoring food insecurity levels, and develop a targeted response. Only then will Australians realise their human right to nutritious food.
If you want to read more about the extent of poverty in Australia, you can read all of the submissions from the Government Inquiry here.