Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

OPINIONKaiApril 27, 2020

Covid-19 has thrown food insecurity into sharp relief. Let’s use it as an opportunity

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

The current crisis has rendered visible challenges that have been simmering in the background long before the country went into lockdown, writes Chris Farrelly of the Auckland City Mission.

Covid-19 presents new and unfamiliar territory for many of us in our day-to-day realities. Be it managing childcare in the home office, or adjusting to time apart from loved ones, there are changes in all our lives that are challenging us through this period.

Among others, however, this pandemic is merely rendering visible challenges that have been simmering in the background long before the country went into lockdown.

Covid is exacerbating existing food insecurity

Following the Covid-19 lockdown, many families have been affected by business closures, reduced hours and pay cuts. Some – particularly those in precarious work arrangements – found themselves suddenly uncertain of how they will afford to feed their children. The Auckland City Mission describes these families as food insecure – in other words, they do not have enough nutritious food to feed themselves and their families.

We have seen reports throughout the country over the last four weeks of significant increases in demand for food assistance. The Christchurch city missioner reported a three-fold increase in food parcel demand the week of the lockdown. The following week, Wellington’s city missioner recorded increased demand of 400%.

In Tāmaki Makaurau, we have witnessed similar spikes in demand, and responses on an unprecedented scale. At the mission, in the week after Easter, we provided more than 1,200 food parcels compared to our usual 450 each week. Two weeks ago, the government and Auckland Council transformed Spark Arena into a giant food bank to provide for those going hungry during the lockdown.

While food insecurity is a new reality for some people, for others, it long predates the pandemic. According to research released in 2019 by the Auckland City Mission, 10% of New Zealanders didn’t have sufficient, nutritious food.

Food parcels at Auckland City Mission in 2017 (Photo: Getty Images)

Food assistance provides immediate relief, but it does not address food insecurity

It’s indisputable, then, that there is significant unmet need, now more than ever, when it comes to accessing food in Aotearoa. We stand alongside many other organisations throughout the country providing immediate assistance to families, enabling them to meet basic needs through this difficult time.

Providing food for those suffering financial hardship is a tangible way of ensuring affected families don’t go hungry. However, food parcels are not a silver bullet.

Ultimately, food insecurity comes down to insufficient income against expenses.

Many in paid work struggle to find sufficient well-enough paid hours to meet high costs of living. In particular, disproportionate housing costs relative to income leaves many families with little money after paying rent.

For people on benefits, the amount of money coming in is often simply unliveable. Economist Shamubeel Eaqub is projecting that the number of New Zealanders on benefits will double this year following Covid-related job losses. This means that more of us are going to discover the inadequacy of our social safety net.

Tackling food insecurity head-on requires families having sufficient money coming in against money going out. It’s as simple and complicated as that. What, then, are some pathways to increasing household incomes?

We must raise income levels to curb the worst impacts of this crisis among the most vulnerable

One tangible way of increasing household income is to raise main benefit levels. Benefit rates have declined steadily in relation to the average wage over the past 30 years, with current benefit levels insufficient for families to meet basic needs. The government recently signalled steps in the right direction, announcing a $25 raise in benefit levels, reflecting somewhere between a 6.4% and 10% increase in income for beneficiaries. While a boost, this falls short of the Welfare Expert Advisory Group’s 2019 recommendations of increases between 12% and 47%.

Beyond raising benefit levels, we could also be revising the in-work tax credit. Currently, the IWTC is available only to those families in paid employment. While the government recently removed the minimum work hours criteria, this $72.50 per week is still only available to those with waged income. This means that those families who are receiving a benefit – including those who lose work due to the pandemic and apply for a benefit – will lose this crucial $72.50 per week.

For families in waged employment, we could implement a compulsory living wage. This lockdown has highlighted the significance of essential workers – our cleaners, warehouse packers and supermarket cashiers – who occupy crucial but often undervalued and underpaid roles. The difference between the current minimum wage and the living wage rate amounts to $90 per week.

Looking ahead

The pandemic has presented us with a crisis – and an opportunity to reassess the efficacy of current policy. Challenges such as widespread food insecurity have been thrust into the spotlight, opening up space to discuss how best to enact systemic and long-term change.

Any changes we adopt must be sustainable. In time, the lockdown will be over, and the spectacle of a stadium-sized food bank will fade from public consciousness. However, for many families, the impacts of this crisis will reverberate for months and months to come.

We’ve been told repeatedly that life will not go back to the way it was pre-Covid, and that we are to expect a “new normal”. The mission strongly believes this new normal ought to include access to adequate, appropriate food for all New Zealanders.

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