Re-examining responses to Kiwis going hungry

Having to rely on charity is a violation of the right to adequate food. Photo: Getty Images
Having to rely on charity is a violation of the right to adequate food. Photo: Getty Images
Most of us don't realise people go hungry in New Zealand. We don't know how many because there hasn't been a survey for a decade, since the 2008-09 nutrition survey, according to Katharine Cresswell Riol.

Charmian Smith
Charmian Smith
The British-born PhD candidate at the Centre for Sustainability at the University of Otago is researching hunger in this country.

''The main response is charity - foodbanks. Even [Work and Income] sends people to a foodbank. It's just bizarre, you have a government agency sending people to a charity which isn't even getting funding,'' she said.

However, it was similar in some other Western countries.

In her research, she took a human rights approach - the right to adequate food, which is derived from the United Nations International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Few Western countries have signed it but it has been adopted by several developing countries, including many in South America, and some in southern Africa and Asia.

From that perspective, relying on charity was a violation of the right to adequate food, because the state had obligations that people should be able to access food in a socially acceptable way.

In the Western world that meant having sufficient income to enable people to purchase food, which meant adequate benefits or an adequate income from work, she said.

''I was keen to focus on the experiences of people who are food-insecure, because a lot of focus has been placed on the organisational level, how [foodbanks and food rescue organisations] work, even to the point of wanting to make them more efficient.''

She interviewed between 50 and 60 foodbank users, including Pakeha, Maori, Pacific Islanders and former Syrian refugees. All were beneficiaries, some were working part time and some had families. She paid them $20 (just above the living wage) for an hour's interview time.

People were willing to talk about their painful experiences and the disconnection they felt, she said.

''No-one had asked them about it before which put a kind of responsibility on my shoulders to put some stories out there.''

The first thing that came to mind was the neoliberal standpoint that put the blame on the individual, rather than looking at systemic issues of low income, she said.

''The budgeting thing always comes up that people can't budget, but most of the people I spoke to have nothing to budget with. There's no leeway and this is a massive issue when you are living in poverty, especially when a big unexpected bill comes up. It's not in a way unexpected because you are going to get sick, the car's going to break down, but you just can't budget for these things.

''It struck me in the interviews that if you had a child, there was more of a socially acceptable reason to go to a foodbank. If you were an adult and single - you've got the money why don't you sort yourself out - instead of realising there are so many other deep-rooted issues such as the intergenerational aspect of poverty.''

In Katharine's opinion the people who liked foodbanks were businesses, the public and the state.

''If you look at some of these food rescue websites, the problem of hunger is equated with this environmental cause of reducing food waste. Again there's this issue that we are not looking at - we shouldn't even have surplus food. It needs to be looked at in regard to food production and food distribution, but the issues have become murky,'' she said.

''Foodbanks are a godsend to supermarkets because they don't have to pay to get rid of their waste. They're also great for their corporate image - Countdown is now in league with the Salvation Army, for instance.

''And they've got these little bins on the way out so you can buy more food and put it in the bin. It's fantastic for business.

''And for the state it works well because they don't have to address the issue and the public can do their good, they can volunteer, but the people who don't like it are the people using the foodbanks.''

She found people felt it was undignified and stigmatised. Some foodbanks even wanted letters of recommendation from Winz [Work and Income] and questioned the motives of people who came, she said.

One man dreaded going to the supermarket and showing his Winz card because other people looked down on beneficiaries.

''That felt really sad. This person was also struggling with alcoholism and mental health - so many stigmas in one,'' she said.

''This came out in the interviews, the shame behind it and also the need to be grateful. Some people mentioned that they were grateful for the food, even when it had gone off, especially the bread. It's painful because there is no accountability with things like foodbanks and charity. There is no choice.''

Several people told her they wanted to eat healthier food but it was just too expensive so they chose cheaper options.

''When you are poor you are lacking energy and time - maybe you have a couple of children you are looking after yourself, working two jobs, and you just need something quick that will fill you up, so you will probably go for something that's less healthy. There's a lot of bad rap against people who are poor because they eat unhealthily. But there are so many factors involved.''

Much of the food supplied to the foodbanks was predominantly unhealthy. There wasn't much fresh food, meat was lacking and there were few green vegetables, she said.

''I was shocked by how much bread - I thought maybe there was a bread conspiracy going on because there is so much bread and it's white bread. It's not just it lacks nutrition but it's even detrimental to health because it just breaks down into sugar.''

One woman who suffered from diabetes told her there was basically nothing she was given that she could eat. She labelled herself a fussy eater, turning it on herself which was a common aspect of being poor - you internalised the stigma and blamed yourself as well. She said she felt bad going to foodbanks because she might be taking food away from someone else like a family and as a single person she felt guilty in that respect. There was shame on so many levels, Katharine said.

However, she realised foodbanks were in a difficult position. They recognised they had taken on more than they expected and were now shouldering what should be government responsibilities. They originally wanted to be a stopgap but they had become political because they were dealing with massive social issues. They had become institutionalised and food rescue had been incorporated and it was too late to stop now. They had become part of the system, she said.

''I do feel for foodbanks in that way because I know they are trying to do what they can. When people come, they try to help them with other issues and advocacy. The volunteers try to inject as much dignity as they can into the process, and they are a lifeline to a lot of people. They go there when they don't know where else to go.''

The Salvation Army tried to deal with the policy side, bringing out reports each year looking at poverty and inequality. Others, like Kai Share in North East Valley or Catholic Social Services, tried to bring people together, providing companionship and empathy and other services, she said.

Although charities had always supplied food for the hungry - soup kitchens have been around since the 19th century - use of foodbanks exploded in the 1980s and '90s with neoliberalism reducing state responsibilities and cutting benefits massively, she said.

It was also important to remember that most people who were food insecure did not use foodbanks.

''We don't know how many food-insecure people are in this country.

''A proper survey needs to be done first.''

Comments

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