Australia is a gourmand’s delight. Our cities boast fabulous restaurants, fancy delis and celebrity chefs. Our supermarket shelves groan with the weight of abundance. Our appetite for quinoa, kimchi and $8 artisan bread knows no bounds.
But for some Australians, food is more of a discretionary item, something which you do without if an unexpected bill needs to be paid. According to Foodbank, Australia’s leading hunger relief charity, increasing numbers of disadvantaged Australians are relying on emergency relief services such as food banks just to survive.
Foodbank’s most recent End Hunger report discovered that 70 per cent of the welfare agencies that use their services had seen an increase in demand from people needing food relief. Ninety per cent of the agencies said they didn’t have enough food to meet this demand. Foodbank are currently gathering data for their 2013 report and expect these figures to rise.
This increase in demand is reflected globally. US charity Feeding America estimates that use of food banks has risen by 46 per cent over the past five years. In the UK, the Trussell Trust say that in the three months following the introduction of strict new welfare policies earlier this year, 200 per cent more Britons began using their food banks.
“Lack of food is a major issue every day for the 2.2 million Australians who are living below the poverty line. It’s a significant and growing problem and something desperately needs to happen”, says John Webster, CEO of Foodbank.
Webster says that although Australia is a prosperous country, things are still very hard for many people. “I recently visited a welfare agency in Tasmania and spoke to a lady who said she couldn’t survive if she couldn’t come there to get a food parcel. She’s got two young kids, her husband works in a low-paid job and she says she has to borrow toilet roll from the neighbours. They prioritise paying the bills and caring for their children so groceries have become a discretionary item for them. It’s a harsh reality for too many people in Australia.”
The welfare agency Anglicare recently published Hard Choices, a report on emergency food relief in NSW and the ACT. Of those surveyed, 82 per cent of respondents were not sure where their next meal was coming from. Eighty two percent had cut meal sizes and 68 per cent had skipped meals on a recurring basis in an effort to keep the wolf from the door.
Anglicare found that those who used their services were drawn from the most vulnerable groups in society – those on low incomes, people with a disability, the unemployed, single parents, those with housing difficulties and Indigenous people.
Sue King, Director of Advocacy at Anglicare, told NM that the findings about children were of most concern. “We found that children are regularly eating low cost carbohydrates because there isn't enough money to buy fresh food and vegetables. Parents are cutting meal sizes to make food go further and children are regularly going hungry. There are children who sometimes do not eat for a whole day.”
King says that there are several measures that could start to ease the problem of food insecurity. “We’d like to see Newstart payments increased. The current rate is forcing people into poverty. More funding for emergency relief and state support for local food and nutrition initiatives could also help. Long term, we would like to see better provision of stable and affordable housing to reduce the housing insecurity which can lead to problems such as food poverty.”
The increase in demand for food emergency relief is part of a wider story. The ACOSS 2013 Community Sector Survey, released earlier this year, painted a picture of a community and welfare sector which is struggling to cope.
Dr Cassandra Goldie, CEO of ACOSS, told NM that although Australia is generally doing well, there is a core group of people who are experiencing profound difficulties as a result of an uncertain economic climate, increased unemployment, declining real value of income support payments and family payments and changing entitlement to eligibility criteria such as the Parenting Payment and Baby Bonus. This in turn places pressure on welfare organisations, which are trying to balance underfunding with an increased demand for housing, legal and mental health services.
“The current Government’s position on refusing to address the unbearably low rates of Newstart and other allowances is deeply shaming," says Goldie. “We have seen no real increase in these payments since 1994 and no firm policy commitments in this election year. There is an urgent need to increase the single rate of these allowances by a minimum of $50 a week."
However, despite expressing disappointment at the Government’s inaction, Goldie is often surprised by how local communities band together to help those in need. “Since the GFC we’ve seen a new awareness that unemployment can happen to anyone in Australia and empathy for those who have fallen on hard times. We all have a role to play in helping people get back on their feet.”
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made noises about increasing the Newstart allowance prior to the election campaign, but it hasn't been on the agenda since July.
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