How we perceive household poverty, hunger and food insecurity is shaped by the media, government policy, public relations, advertising and personal experience. But a lingering thread is the notion that poverty and food insecurity are the result of poor personal choices and wrong priorities.
Over time, this view can be seen as ‘common sense’, influencing our understanding of how and why people go hungry. But is it correct? Does the focus on individual failures – and individual solutions – mean New Zealanders are missing out on the big picture?
Our three research projects (recently published together) looked at the experiences of families who don’t have enough to eat. We spoke with people struggling with food poverty and asked them why this could be tolerated in a country that produces so much food.
We found that, contrary to popular belief, parents starved themselves of food to feed their children, that many had good nutritional knowledge and that mothers in particular worked very hard to protect their children from the extent of poverty and hunger among the population. residence.
Focus on the individual
Food insecurity refers to the inability to access safe and nutritionally adequate food. In Aotearoa New Zealand, one in five children aged 2 to 14 live in food-insecure households with limited access to nutrient-dense foods.
When resources are insufficient to feed everyone well, families ration food, opt for cheaper items that “complement” a meal, and purchase items that last longer in closets.
Despite these rates of food insecurity in families, those who have not experienced food insecurity still tend to attribute hunger to individual decision making. Families involved in our research felt shame and stigma at not being able to afford enough food, in large part because of the way hunger and poverty are portrayed in public debates.
Stories that blame individuals for not trying harder rarely address known drivers of poverty and hunger, such as insufficient income, precarious work, high rents Where lack of access to suitable land to grow food.
Promoting individual self-sufficiency and self-help as solutions to combat food insecurity erases the larger social context in which food insecurity and hunger occur.
In reality, the food “choice” challenges faced by families such as those in our research stem from insufficient access to resources and unfairly shared resources. Food inflation has increased 8.3% in Augustwhile wages have only increased 3.4% over the past year.
The families we spoke with spent a lot of time and energy finding food creatively and stretching the food available so that everyone in the family had enough to eat.
Households have found creative ways to cope, such as pooling resources, tapping into broader family networks, and seeking charitable and state support. Faced with continued hardship, people have used less socially acceptable measures, such as shoplifting, dumpster diving and cooking in public spaces to cope with lack of food.
Easier to give to charity than to challenge the status quo
When presented with examples of food insecurity and hunger, sympathetic people typically offer charitable support in the form of donations or volunteer work. However, this does not address the main drivers of unequal access to resources.
People who have resources to share are seen as altruistic, compassionate and empathetic when they give to charity. In comparison, people in need of charity feel a sense of shame and stigma at having their lack and insufficiency exposed to strangers. In a society that values independence, people who need help with a basic need, such as food, to feel humiliated.
Hunger is political
Historical and political contributors to food insecurity remain firmly in place, in part due to firmly held beliefs around “bad choices” and a desire for charity to be used as the solution instead of more equal access to resources.
Across Aotearoa New Zealand, farms are producing enough high-quality food to feed 30 million people per year. Yet New Zealanders – and disproportionately disabled and Maori families and Pacifica – do not have foods that are nutritionally rich enough for their health and well-being.
Structural changes are crucial to properly address food insecurity. This includes addressing past and current injustices, ensuring decent incomes for all, building affordable housing, and tackling wealth inequality.
Our research found that people living with limited resources did the best they could. What is needed is political action to address the root causes of hunger and food insecurity, not simplistic narratives about personal responsibility and choice.