The Effects of Food Insecurity.
In December 2022, Visionwest Waka Whakakitenga – a West Auckland-based community trust working in regions throughout the country to provide wraparound support services to people with a variety of needs – released The One Hundred Whānau Food and Financial Hardship Report.
The Report is based on the responses of 110 client whānau (representing over 400 people) associated with Visionwest who completed an in-depth survey relating to their financial situation with a specific emphasis on food insecurity. This is PART TWO of a four-part series based on that report. Part One can be read here.
Lena is stalked by a constant dilemma: should she pay her overdue power bill, or should she buy food? Should she book a much-needed medical appointment for her son, or should she spend that money on groceries? There is never enough money for everything and that leads to tremendous personal stress for Lena. With four intermediate and high school-age boys, the appetites are always there, but the food often isn’t. Lena worries the lack of money means they miss out on sport and social events, and they never get trips or holidays away.
Formerly a teacher, Lena gave up work to concentrate on her parenting. Even when she was working, she struggled financially. It’s been a constant battle for the whole eight years she’s been on her own. At times, it has brought her very low. “I actually came to a crisis point where I felt I couldn’t go on. It’s a bit better now; lunches at school and food parcels have helped enormously, and I have done a lot of work on myself, but it is still very hard.”
Lena’s story captures a reality to food insecurity that is often overlooked – the effects of being unable to afford adequate food go well beyond an empty stomach. Visionwest’s One Hundred Whānau Food and Financial Hardship Report captured two aspects of food insecurity that are often overlooked.
Choice and Connection
The survey used in the Visionwest study is used internationally to measure food insecurity and associated issues relating to personal finances. Two aspects of food insecurity that are often overlooked were revealed.
The first is choice. Over half of the respondents reported that every week they cannot afford the quality and variety of food they would otherwise choose. This is significant in a society where the rise in obesity and the intake of cheaper foods of dubious nutrition is often commented on.
Almost certainly, the rocketing inflation in food prices contributes to this inability to choose preferred food items – in the September 2022 quarter, compared with the June 2022 quarter, vegetable prices rose 24%, according to stats.govt.nz. As recently as 19 January 2023, the NZ Herald reported that food price increases for the year between December 2021 and December 2022 were the biggest in 32 years. Fruit and vegetable prices increased by 23% year-on-year.
With regards to the lack of choice many people experience when purchasing food, one of the hallmarks of poverty in the Western world is not simply insufficient calories but malnourishment from food of inadequate variety and quality. As referred to above, this leads to something of a paradox where the link between poverty and obesity has become evident throughout the developed world.
The second often-overlooked aspect of food insecurity is connection. People affected by food insecurity find the ability to engage and contribute socially is limited.
Sharing food and extending hospitality is a part of the overwhelming majority of cultures; three-quarters of the people in this survey stated that they experienced stress at least monthly because of their inability to contribute food in social settings; over 51% experienced that stress at least weekly.
This stress increases during times of festivity or cultural celebration. It’s not surprising then that many of the almost 1,800 whānau (over 9,000 people) who received Christmas food support from Visionwest’s Christmas From The Heart 2022 event mentioned the stress relief that came from knowing they could celebrate Christmas Day with other whānau.
When people are deprived of choice and connection, self-esteem and mental health plummets. The large majority of the people surveyed experience these pernicious side-effects of poverty at least some of the time; many feel constantly stressed about their inability to afford food.
Food Insecurity and Stress
One of the grimmest indicators of hardship evident in the survey was the experience of stress reported by every person responding to the survey. Two-thirds of respondents admit to feeling stressed at least weekly and over a third live in constant stress about their ability to feed themselves and their family.
Stress, both acute and cumulative, is identified as a leading cause of disease and death. The American Psychological Association links stress to heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, liver disease and suicide. Even if you lay compassion aside, the reality that morbidity and mortality are hugely expensive for a country remains and reducing stress by increasing income could, from a purely economic perspective, be incredibly cost effective.
Inevitably, huge health costs, and terrible morbidity and mortality increases lie ahead for Aotearoa New Zealand if chronic poverty-related stress remains unabated.
POSTSCRIPT following the Auckland flooding and Cyclone Gabrielle. The report shines a light on the simple reality that while many New Zealanders grapple with poverty, many others are teetering on the edge, sitting just one unexpected incident or crisis away from falling into poverty themselves. For many, the recent weather events will have been that unexpected moment.
This is Part Two of Visionwest’s commentary on Food and Financial Hardship in Aotearoa New Zealand. Part Three will answer the question, “Where does the money go?”
You can read the entire Visionwest One Hundred Whānau Food and Financial Hardship Report at https://visionwest.org.nz/about-us/resources-publications/hardship-report/.