Community and emergency food aid are a challenge for chronic food insecurity

New research led by Dr Fiona McKay from the School of Health and Social Development and Dr Rebecca Lindberg from the Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN) at Deakin University, has explored the experiences of people who access emergency and community food.

Why do people need emergency and community food?

High costs of living and low wage growth mean that more people in Australia experience hunger and food insecurity and need emergency and community food assistance. Food security refers to a situation when all people at all times have access to a sufficient quantity and quality of safe, nutritionally adequate, and culturally appropriate foods. While official government statistics suggest that food insecurity in the general Australian population is approximately 5%, Australian research suggests that food insecurity in Australia can range anywhere between 2% and 90%. This number is increasing, placing a strain on emergency and community food aid providers; Foodbank Australia, the largest re-distributor of community food provide support to over 800,000 people per month.

Unfortunately, accessing emergency and community food aid is not protective against food insecurity. People who access emergency and community food often experience other disadvantage, including homelessness, unemployment, and poor health, and emergency and community food providers are often unable to provide a sufficient quality and quantity of food for all in need.

People accessing food aid are experiencing multiple social disadvantages

Who uses emergency and community food aid?

We interviewed 78 people who access community and emergency food relief across a range of agencies in Victoria. Most participants were female, with an average age of 52 years, and had been accessing food aid for 4 years on average. Most participants were in receipt of government welfare, and almost two-thirds were unemployed at the time of the interview.

Participants were either food secure, had low food security, or very low food security. People who are food secure have no problems or anxiety about consistently accessing adequate food. Low food secure households have reduced the quality, variety, and desirability of their diets, but the quantity of food intake and normal eating patterns are not substantially disrupted. While the most severe households, those with very low food security, have disrupted eating patterns and have reduced food intake because the household lacked money and other resources for food. Around two thirds or our participants reported low or very low food security, of which most were experiencing very low food security.

Participants described a range of experiences when accessing food aid. These experiences were often positive, but many participants also experienced shame or stigma because they needed charity. Many participants described how grateful they were that the service existed, stating that without these services they would have gone hungry or worse.

While participants were grateful for the service provided, barriers to access and the removal of choice at some food aid providers resulted in some negative experiences. For some participants, the experience of being handed a food parcel made them feel like others knew they were experiencing poverty.

What does this mean?

Many community and emergency food aid providers are reliant on donations from members of the public or from food redistributed from supermarkets and larger food rescue and banking agencies; this means that the food can be of varying quality. Sometimes goods are out of date or are damaged.

Participants who had been accessing food relief for several years had noticed recent changes in the food they were receiving from the food aid providers, as many relief agencies receive a wider range of donated foods, including culturally diverse foods, and attempt to cater for recent migrants. Participants also described receiving foods that they were unfamiliar with but felt obliged to take in case they were seen as ungrateful. In taking these foods, participants were also giving themselves a small buffer in case there were worse times to come; if they had items in the cupboard, even ones they did not like, at least they would have something to eat.

People accessing food aid were experiencing multiple social disadvantages. Many participants were receiving some form of welfare benefit, were in rental accommodation or waiting for social housing. Food insecurity status was present regardless of housing situation, welfare payment, age, gender, family type, or educational attainment.

Finally, most participants received half to one-third of their food from food aid, meaning this under-resourced sector carries a substantial burden for the nutrition and well being of some of Victoria’s most vulnerable people.

These results highlight areas for policy and public health attention, and a need for further research to better understand demographic profiles of those reliant on food assistance, the relationship between welfare reliance and food insecurity, and the role of food aid use and the experience of food insecurity.

Click here for more information about Deakin IPAN’s research into physical activity and nutrition or follow us on Twitter @DeakinIPAN

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