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KaiDecember 11, 2019

Why giving beneficiaries meal kits is the wrong approach

a hand holding a shopping list above a shopping trolley that contains milk bananas and spinach
It’s rare, but dangerous, for food you bought to contain contamination (Photo: Getty Images)

The very idea that a meal kit is a suitable alternative to a food grant undermines the importance of autonomy and self-determination as human rights, writes Rebekah Graham.

Over the past few months, Work and Income has been trialling providing Auckland-based beneficiaries who have requested a food grant with a Bargain Box food kit instead. Costing between $200 and $300, the emergency food kit is intended to provide breakfast, lunch and dinner for a family for one week.

The Ministry of Social Development stresses that the food box is optional and only a trial at this point. But the very concept is in conflict with the ideas that underpin the right to food: an understanding of autonomy and self-determination. That is, that individuals and groups need to be able to determine for themselves what foods they will source, prepare and consume. The right to food is as much about the right to purchase and cook a meal in your home as it is about being able to find the ingredients. 

The right to food and to autonomy over one’s meals holds true irrespective of a person’s income level, or whether or not they are in receipt of welfare. 

There are various arguments used to justify the refusal to meet our societal obligations to our poorest families. At their core, such arguments can be boiled down to this: wealthier groups want to dictate to beneficiaries what they eat, how they eat and who they eat with. This is not how human rights work: Not only that, but many of the ideas that people hold regarding low-income families are based on nothing more than myth, stereotype and propaganda.

For example, a significant number of those in receipt of a benefit have an illness, disability or chronic condition that makes full-time work difficult and unrealistic. Others are caring for the very young, the unwell or the elderly. Such people and families need to be supported the best we can, not condemned to poverty and hunger in undignifying and humiliating conditions.

In terms of food and eating, New Zealand-based research with low-income households is remarkably consistent in finding that key pressures on low-income families that impact on their “healthy food choices” are predominantly insufficient money and resources available for food, the cost of food (particularly of fresh fruits and vegetables), and influences on food purchases, such as accessibility of supermarkets and the need for culturally appropriate foods. Reports from Whangārei to Dunedin note that low-income families prioritise housing and feeding the children, are excellent budgeters, stretch food to last, and rarely purchase treats or ready meals. 

Not only this, but when low-income New Zealand families are provided with additional food resources in the form of supermarket vouchers, these are used to purchase more fruit and vegetables, and higher-quality protein (meat and poultry). All the nutrition education in the world achieves nothing if food is neither affordable or available; recently released data suggests that things are getting tougher, not better, for nearly a quarter of New Zealand families.

Low-income households, such as those who request food grants from Work and Income, are well aware of how to stretch available funds, and do their very best to meet the family’s food needs. Providing such families with an additional $200 to $300 a month in food grants alone would result in increased expenditure on fruits, vegetables, meats and poultry – with associated flow-on health benefits for all. 

Another way to meet all people’s right to food is by implementing a universal fresh food supply, whereby all New Zealand households could opt in to receive a food-grant-type card for using at supermarkets to purchase food, or, alternatively, opt to receive a regular fresh food delivery from local growers. There are many potential solutions, but whatever pathway the government takes, it needs to have the agency and self-determination of all people at its core. 

In short, families need to be resourced sufficiently. Providing meal items on top of the current welfare provisions may well go some way to alleviating hunger. However, providing all families with an additional $200 to $300 a week through a supermarket card would go further, support autonomy and self-determination with regard to food, and be a better use of government support. The current food box trial fundamentally misunderstands the realities of poverty, while simultaneously reducing people’s agency.

This article has been updated to remove the suggestion that beneficiaries are being coerced to accept the food box.

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