Empty plate with cutlery and a piece of bread
Removing GST might not mean full plates for the whānau who need it most Getty Images/Archi Banal

KaiFebruary 22, 2024

Rising food insecurity felt most by Pacific, Māori and disabled children

Empty plate with cutlery and a piece of bread
Removing GST might not mean full plates for the whānau who need it most Getty Images/Archi Banal

The Salvation Army’s latest State of the Nation report published last Thursday shows a sharp rise in the number of households with children that experience food insecurity.

“It weighs heavily on Māori and Pacific children, but particularly, Pacific children,” says Ana Ika, one of the authors of the Salvation Army State of the Nation report. One of the startling points of the report is that 40% of Pacific households with children say that food runs out “often or sometimes”. Next were Māori households with children, at 35.1%, and then households with children living with a disability, at 35%. It’s part of a sharp rise in food insecurity during 2023, with rising inflation hitting the lower-income households the hardest. More than one in five households with children under 15 years old reported that food runs out often or sometimes, an increase from 14% in 2022. 

Image: The Salvation Army, State of the Nation 2024.

“A lot of the sad numbers that are shown [in the report] are not a surprise. We see these challenges come through our front lines before they’re published or reported on,” says Ika. She’s a social policy analyst and advocate in the Salvation Army’s social policy and parliamentary unit, but previously spent about a decade in youth work. From the window of her current office, Ika can watch progress on a new vegetable garden taking shape at the Salvation Army centre in Manukau. While it’s not exactly in her job description, she can sometimes be found helping at the on-site food bank, asking families what they need help with and even praying for them

The rates of food insecurity come from Ministry of Health data which is collected from a small sample size, and so there can be a significant margin of error, says Ika. To give a fuller picture, the report adds data about the food parcels the Salvation Army gives out. In the year to December 2023, it distributed around 92,000 food parcels around the country. If you think that’s a lot, you’re right – it’s a 40% increase from the previous year. 

“The centre here in Manukau is one of the busiest centres, we can only give out about 40 food parcels a day,” says Ika. Parcels aren’t pre-packaged and simply given out, instead there’s a choice system, where families are allocated points which they can then use to get their selection of groceries from the food bank, which is laid out like a small supermarket. The choice system is essential, says Ika, because giving people dried goods such as rice or pasta is useless if they don’t have access to a kitchen. Recently they’ve had to cut down the regularity at which people can access the food bank, to once a month. “It’s a policy that we had to implement just because we don’t have enough food to be able to give out.” Some families come as often as they can and others a couple of times a year. New immigrants often need food parcels while they find their feet, and then never return. The food bank isn’t the only way they help people access food, they also have Kiwi Kai Co-op, where families pay a small weekly subscription for fruit and veges.

The Salvation Army is wary of creating dependance, says Ika, “so I guess there’s a greater commitment there to be able to find out why, and to address that.” She says the need for food is almost always a symptom of not having enough income. When people frequently visit the food bank, “we try and direct them to our financial mentors, but it’s difficult when you have nothing –  when you’re trying to help them budget, but there’s nothing to budget”. She says people will pay all the bills, and “then there’s nothing left for food, because that’s often the last thing on the list.”

The choice model means people can pick food appropriate to their culture and circumstances. (Image: Archi Banal)

This was certainly the case for six solo mothers interviewed for academic research in 2022. The research found that the grocery budget was thought to be the only significant area of financial discretion. Unexpected or unbudgeted expenses like car or appliance repair costs, school trip fees, and health-related expenses meant even less money for food. “On a bad week, sometimes I won’t eat at all just so there’s enough for the kids,” said one mother. 

With limited budgets, the quality and quantity of food they bought changed. One substituted dried instant potato mix for real potatoes because a 500g bag of the mix cost $1.59, far less than the equivalent $14 for 10kg of potatoes. Another is quoted as saying, “Even if I had like, instead of $60, if I had like $100 a week, that, we would be fine, we wouldn’t have any problems but unfortunately that’s not the case.” Another says, “none of us should have, like let’s choose, do we want to eat or do we pay that bill?” 

Another barrier the women faced was transport. Half did not have reliable access to a car, which reduced the number of shopping trips, and the quantity of food bought each time was just what they could physically carry.

Food insecurity matters because it has been linked to nutritionally inadequate diets, iron deficiency anaemia, multiple chronic conditions, obesity, type 2 diabetes and poor self-rated physical and mental health. In a 2019 report by Ashley Bloomfield, he wrote that children in food insecure households fare worse than their counterparts on indicators of health, development, and access to health services. Their parents are more likely to report psychological distress and, more specifically, stress related to parenting. He found research dating back to 2001 showing that Māori and Pacific children have been more likely to live in homes with food insecurity. 

Image: The Salvation Army, State of the Nation 2024.

There’s another area in the State of the Nation report where pacific children are faring worse. Material hardship (measured by putting off doctor or dentist visits, not paying utility bills, putting up with feeling cold and not replacing/repairing appliances) has declined since at least 2019 for all ethnic groups except for Pacific children. (Note that the figures for MELAA – Middle East, Latin America and Africa ethnicities, and “other” – cover a small number of children with a resulting high statistical margin of error.) “That provides a context around the challenges that Pacific children are facing that there’s a disproportionate impact on them,” says Ika. 

The main purpose of the report is to influence policy and as a tool for advocacy. It’s no coincidence that it’s released around the time that parliament starts sitting for the year. Ika says it’s to be used as a benchmark and report card. “From here on out, how do we improve on the things that have gotten better, and how do we work in partnership to be able to address the challenges, the many challenges, that this report highlights?”

Ika says “youth workers don’t usually go into policy”. What prompted her was wanting to be able to push along incremental changes which in turn make significant changes in communities, rather than helping individuals. It was a hard move, even though youth work has its difficulties, she says you get to directly help, and then see, young people flourish. In policy, “you just have to keep on pushing.” 

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