Australia is often talked about as a ‘Food Secure’ nation. Such statements are made when food production and consumption are measured against each other; with Australia exporting about 70% of food produced and only importing 11%. With an abundance of food, why does Australia have a growing problem with food insecurity?
Food security is not only about the amount of food available, but exists when “when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life”. In addition to this, for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, this also means food sovereignty. Which is “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food, produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems”.
Research in 2022 published by the Melbourne Institute highlighted the growing rates of food insecurity experienced by Australians. People are skipping meals and eating less just to get by, with “close to 45% of young adults aged 18 to 24 report[ing] some level of food insecurity”. In addition, a recent ACOSS report shows people on job seeker benefits are skipping meals and medication due to the rising cost of living. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, food insecurity in Australia was already at unprecedented levels, as shown by the increasing number of of people seeking food relief. The 2022 Food Bank hunger report released this week reveal that “Over 2 million households in Australia (21%) had experienced severe food insecurity in the last 12 months” . Such statistics show that Australia has a problem with food insecurity, which is related to unequal and unreliable access to safe, nutritious, healthy, and culturally appropriate food for all Australians. Without urgent action from state and federal governments, high levels of food insecurity are to become “the new normal”.
While some data exists, the true severity of food insecurity experienced and the groups of Australians at the highest risk remains unknown. Without this data, we cannot expect timely actions to support food insecure Australians.
Recently, Australian Right to Food Coalition members have been involved in convening a national dialogue of food insecurity researchers to discuss the lack of national and state level data collection on food insecurity. Despite knowing from studies of university students, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, women, and people living in rural and remote areas, currently there is no comprehensive, and regular data collected on food insecurity in Australia at a National or State Level. How then can we claim to be food secure?
The last national survey that measured food insecurity in Australia was carried out in 2011/2013 and showed a national prevalence of 4%. However, the relatively low prevalence reported is due in part to the restricted nature of the questions asked which underestimate food insecurity. Much has changed since this time and experts are calling for a more comprehensive set of questions to be asked in national surveys in order to understand the true prevalence and severity of food insecurity in Australia, by using the 18 item Household Food Insecurity Survey module. Whilst Food Bank collects data each year from emergency food relief providers, we know that many people experiencing food insecurity seek emergency food relief as a last resort, but cope in many other ways. Without asking the questions and collecting the data on food insecurity we cannot claim to be a food secure nation.
Members of the Right to Food Coalition have been working to understand the best approach to measuring food insecurity in Australia so we can continue to advocate for longer term solutions. This work is ongoing and important in the context of anti-poverty week as we know that the most severe food insecurity is experienced by those living in poverty.
The good news is we know one action that the Australian Federal government can take right now to reduce the prevalence of food insecurity in Australia- Raise the Rate of Jobseeker and other working age payments to at least $73 a day. By doing so, people would have greater ability to afford to buy food.
Food security is a fundamental human right. This anti-poverty week we are calling on the Australian Government to face up to Australia’s growing problem with food insecurity. With data comes action, so ongoing monitoring of the severity and groups of Australians at risk of food insecurity is an urgent priority.
Written for the RTF Coalition by Miriam Williams , Katherine Kent and Simone Sheriff
i Dr Miriam Williams is a Senior Lecturer in Geography and Planning at Macquarie University
ii Dr Katherine Kent is a Lecturer in Public Health in the School of Health Sciences at Western Sydney University
iii Simone Sherriff is a Wotjobaluk woman and has worked at the Sax Institute on the Study of Environment on
Aboriginal Resilience and Child Health (SEARCH) for eleven years and is currently completing her PhD