A coalition of researchers, including social scientists from Macquarie University, is calling for urgent government action to tackle the growing number of Australians skipping meals or eating low quality food.
A combination of floods, rising living costs and the impact of COVID-19 has pushed almost two million Australian households into severe food insecurity, leading researchers say. They want the government to act urgently to better understand the problem and develop targeted responses.
Feature by Melinda Ham.
Australia is one of the most food secure countries in the world. It exports 72 per cent of agricultural output, according to the Department of Agriculture Food and Fisheries. Yet one in five Australian households now faces acute food insecurity.
Food insecurity means people skipping meals or eating low quality food, says Dr Miriam Willams, an urban geographer and senior lecturer in Macquarie’s School of Social Sciences.
“In practice, this means because they don’t have enough money to cover their usual grocery bills, parents are going without food or skimping on meals on some days or buying low cost food with less nutritional value, such as fast food,” she says.
The call for an urgent government response comes from researchers across Australia universities, including two academics from Macquarie University.
“What we need is a comprehensive food plan to ensure everyone has access to healthy, affordable, sustainable and culturally appropriate food across Australia.”
Williams and her colleague, Associate Professor Seema Mihrshahi of the School of Health Sciences, have joined forces with 16 other academics to form the Australian Household Food Security Data Coalition. They have released a Household Food Security Data Consensus statement to pressure federal and state governments to tackle this issue.
“We won’t have a full picture of the prevalence of food insecurity without national, regular data collection on food security,” says Williams. “We’re proposing a national plan so that when we do have the data it’s easier to act because we know who to help and where they live.”
Who is going hungry?
Australians who experience most food insecurity include young people (39% of people between ages 18-24) and single parent households with children (37%). Renters, the unemployed and low income earners are also vulnerable, according to the Food Bank statistics from 2022.
The coalition of researchers says the government should commit to mandatory, regular monitoring and reporting of the prevalence of marginal, moderate and severe food insecurity in each state and territory across Australia. Countries such as the UK, US and Canada already do this. Armed with this data, governments can then ensure timely and targeted policy responses to and measures of food insecurity, Williams says.
Severe flooding particularly affected the cost of agricultural produce such as dairy, beef, horticulture and sugar cane. For people living on a tight budget, food price rises combined with rent increases (of 17.6 per cent for units and 14.6 per cent in capital cities in the last quarter of 2022, according to the Domain Rent Report) meant the difference for many people between going with or without food, Williams says.
In her own research of 13 food relief providers during the pandemic, Williams has gathered qualitative research on how the nature of food insecurity has rapidly increased.
“During lockdowns, food relief providers previously provided emergency relief but now that stress has continued today with the same people coming back because food insecurity is now a day-to-day, chronic concern,” she says.
Due to the reliance of governments on the food relief sector in caring for growing numbers of people experiencing food insecurity, Williams says these providers — organisations such as OzHarvest, SecondBite, Food Bank and others — will need consistent grant funding.
But she says governments need to tackle the systemic causes of food insecurity, not just fund short term solutions. This starts with creating state and national food policy councils.
“What we need is a comprehensive food plan to ensure everyone has access to healthy, affordable, sustainable and culturally appropriate food across Australia. We need to consult the people who are food insecure themselves and learn from their lived experience,” she says.
This would also mean raising the rate of JobSeeker payments, rent relief and Youth Allowance for domestic students as well as assistance to international students, she says.
The NSW government has conducted an inquiry into food insecurity in the state which concluded last year. “We are now waiting to see what comprehensive action comes out of this inquiry,” Williams says.
Dr Miriam Williams is a Senior lecturer in the Department of Social Sciences in the Faculty of Arts at Macquarie University.