28 March 2021

The food insecurity crisis – co-ordinated government policies are key

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Kate Harrington / kate@nwkcom.co.nz

Auckland’s fourth lockdown saw (once again) the influx of Kiwis queuing at food banks. Covid-19 has highlighted the vulnerabilities of our food system and has brought with it increased urgency to address food insecurity in New Zealand.

Although recent initiatives seeking to respond to food insecurity are encouraging, Covid-19 has exposed a pre-existing structural weakness in our food system - household income is a significant barrier to accessing healthy food.

Considering the government’s social obligation to ensure that access to food, the most basic of human rights, is met, further nutrition strategies and economic policies targeting the structural determinants of food insecurity are needed. According to the United Nations, food security is achieved ‘when everyone has continuous access to safe, nutritious food’. By inference, food insecurity prevails when this is not the case.

The reality is that even before Covid-19, 20% of New Zealand households were affected by food insecurity. According to the recent Food Hardship and Early Childhood Nutrition Report, low income is the biggest predictor of food hardship. Covid-19 has therefore exacerbated food insecurities, due to unemployment, under-employment and economic hardship – widespread impacts of the pandemic. 

In 2020, the Salvation Army distributed over 113,000 food parcels – double that of 2019.The pandemic has pushed the vulnerable living on the brink of the poverty line into the necessity of food parcels. This can be attributed to the availability, cost, and accessibility of food. Lockdowns meant retail food outlets closed which, combined with constrained household incomes, impacted the ability of families to source nutritious food from supermarkets alone.

Despite this, there have been some positive responses to food insecurity.

The government recently announced the roll-out of a free school lunch programme ‘Ka Ora, Ka Ako’ in deprived areas. This starts in June and has the capacity to be a ‘top-down’ approach by reducing reliance on food supply chains and the goodwill of volunteers. The initiative will also economically assist local communities in the preparation and provision of the lunches.

The Kore Hiakai Zero Hunger Collective has partnered with the Ministry of Social Development and the New Zealand Food Network to devise long-term solutions, guided by Te Tiriti O Waitangi, to address underlying structural inequities around inadequate income. The Collective also acknowledges the urgent requirement to feed our most vulnerable by connecting producers with community organisations to distribute food. With the likes of Foodstuffs getting behind these organisations, this demonstrates how heavily the current food system relies on the donations of food industry corporations and charities.

Most recently, Wellington City Mission and New World have teamed up to open the innovative Social Supermarket. This is an exciting shift from the traditional pre-selected food parcel model, to one that empowers individuals to choose their own food items from a wide range in-store. A promising step, the Social Supermarket will help normalise the experience of engaging with the Mission, with shoppers taught budgeting techniques and social workers available to assist alongside a full-time store manager. 

While the importance of food banks – especially during Covid-19 – cannot (and should not) be denied, lessening food insecurity in New Zealand will require a cohesive approach backed by government policies that are consistent with the intentions of these exciting initiatives.