Facing up to the hurt of hunger

Land of plenty? Child poverty statistics might beg to differ. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
The Commerce Commission report on competition in the retail grocery sector has rightly placed attention on the control that the two major supermarket chains play in shaping our food system.

New Zealand is in fact recognised as having one of the world’s most concentrated grocery markets. Limited competition has created high prices for consumers relative to other countries, while suppliers and our food producers are forced to accept low prices and greater uncertainty. This has generated high profits for the major retailers.

However, the supermarket duopoly is only one of many factors that contribute to the persistence of hunger in New Zealand, where nearly one in five children in New Zealand live in moderate to severe food-insecure households. We need to ask why.

What does it mean to be hungry in Dunedin? It means being in physical pain. It means developing and sharing coping strategies with other family members, such as sleeping on your stomach to dull the ache. That’s understanding hunger.

It means feeling lethargic, in a bad mood and like you can’t achieve anything because all you’re thinking about is food. Your brain clouds over. It’s your body’s natural instinct taking over and knowing that if you don’t reduce the hunger, it’ll spiral into worse things.

Being hungry means feeling looked down upon because you don’t have enough resources to feed yourself. You personally feel downtrodden and as though everything’s against you. It’s a horrible position to be in life.

Hunger means not having anything to eat for four days. Or knowing that whatever food you do get has to go to your kids before it comes to you. It’s knowing that you need something, but you can’t have it. It means having a child ask for food and knowing that there is none.

These examples are just a small glimpse of how people experiencing hunger in Dunedin define it. They illustrate the physical, mental, social and cultural implications of coping with hunger.

It doesn’t have to be this way. At its root, the solutions to addressing hunger are relatively straightforward. People are hungry and food insecure because they don’t have the ability to access sufficient, safe, nutritious and culturally appropriate food. They need the means to buy food, which means they need adequate incomes through employment or they need to rely on a social welfare system that provides benefit payments to ensure food security.

Accessibility is one component. Systemic discrimination is another. There are structural barriers faced by marginalised groups that need to be addressed to ensure equal access to adequate pay, resources and opportunities to access food.

However, the most significant barrier to eliminating hunger in New Zealand is apathy on the part of those who are well fed. Collectively, we buy into notions of the deserving and undeserving hungry. We allocate compassion for children and place blame on their parents for making bad choices.

We force people into the undignified position of demonstrating their eligibility and their worth to obtain a food parcel to stave off hunger temporarily. We ask those who are hungry to prove it. In some cases they are forced to get a foodbank referral from Work and Income or to attend budgeting counselling. We do this to hold them accountable for their food parcel and satisfy our concern that they are not taking advantage of the system.

We pretend that the charitable sector can address issues of hunger through well-intentioned efforts at food redistribution, cooking education, nutrition awareness or gardening lessons. In doing so, we trick ourselves into thinking that the issue of hunger is being addressed. But we fail to acknowledge our collective responsibility and accountability to each other.

We fail to embrace a holistic understanding of community wellbeing based on the recognition that if someone is hungry in our community, we’re all worse off. We allow those who are hungry to feel ashamed for obtaining a food parcel when we should feel ashamed that food charity continues to be the dominant solution to food insecurity. We fail to recognise the dignity and worth in all of us and we’re not nearly as angry about our collective failures as we should be.

So how do we begin to address these failures? We can make the scale and scope of the problem much more visible. We can normalise concerns about food, hunger, accessibility and food security by placing food and hunger front and centre in local and national decision-making. We can commit to treating everyone with dignity and recognise their human right to adequate food. By respecting food as a right we become responsible for other people and our communities. Combating hunger will take a collective effort.

Governments at all levels can support this by committing to the right to adequate food, which is a missing component of our New Zealand Bill of Rights. This would be a step towards acknowledging that the government has a legal obligation to ensuring that everyone has a right to access food that is nutritious and culturally appropriate by ensuring conditions are in place in which everyone can feed themselves with dignity, and that we have the power to hold it to account if it doesn’t.

Doing so would place debates about what to do about supermarket control of the food system in a different context. It would force us to ask questions about how our food system contributes to the elimination of hunger and the fulfilment of everyone’s right to food.

 - Katharine Cresswell Riol is a PhD candidate at the University of Otago Centre for Sustainability. Sean Connelly is a senior lecturer at the University of Otago School of Geography. Every week in this column writers address issues of sustainability.

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