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No, poor New Zealand families can’t just ‘grow their own vegetables’

Parents in low income families are always being told that if they are having difficulty putting food on the table that they should just ‘put in a garden’. But, as Rebekah Graham and Kimberly Jackson explain, their research with New Zealand families shows that it’s not as simple as it sounds.

To protect the privacy of research participants, pseudonyms are used throughout this article.

This post is part of our series on income inequality and social issues facing New Zealand families. You can read Kiki Van Newtown’s piece on growing poor in New Zealand here.

Anne lives in a tiny two-bedroom unit and experiences constant anxiety about stretching her resources to feed herself and her baby. There isn’t enough money from her welfare provisions to pay for housing, bills and adequate food. She purchases cheap dollar loaves of bread from the local corner store to stave off her hunger pains but the lack of nutritious food means she is unable to produce enough breastmilk to feed her baby. This has created a vicious cycle of hunger and sleep deprivation, eventually culminating in an emotional breakdown at a local family support centre. Anne, along with an increasing number of New Zealanders, is experiencing ongoing food insecurity.

Food insecurity occurs when people do not have consistent access to sufficient, nutritionally adequate food. According to the most recent data available from the Ministry of Health, 7.3% of New Zealand households are experiencing low food security and frequently have insufficient food. More recent research tells us that food insecurity among low income groups in New Zealand is increasing. This means that more and more New Zealand’s families are struggling to put enough food on the table.

It is often assumed by many, most vocally in online comment sections, that growing one’s own fruit and vegetables is a realistic solution to food insecurity. There is a nostalgic appeal to idea, embedded in notions of ‘kiwi-can-do’ and assumptions about previous generations who uncomplainingly grew abundant food. When asking ‘Why don’t people simply grow their own food?’ the underlying judgement is that when people do not grow their own food it is due to laziness and a lack of initiative. There is the assumption that people living with poverty and food insecurity have the time, resources, knowledge, support, space, physical ability and good health to prepare and maintain a garden.

The reality is that people on low incomes tend to work very hard; many do like to grow produce, often employing great ingenuity to grow a few items. Sophie, for example, juggles paid work, benefits and the care of her young son. She has very little space to grow food, but uses pots for herbs. She does not feel confident about how to grow food, having no experience of it and limited knowledge: “I tried it! I’m not very good at growing things!” The ability to indulge in the longer trial and error process of learning requires resources Sophie doesn’t have. The priorities for Sophie are increasing her paid work hours and helping her son with school homework, leaving little time left over for growing vegetables.

Like many people living with hunger, Anne has found that better-off New Zealanders often don’t understand the reality of food insecurity: “I don’t have a veggie garden and people are just like, ‘grow food’, and I’m like yeah but then you’ve got to get the plants and then you’ve got to wait for the food. I need food now. Like, that’s a long term solution…Even getting seeds, you know, how long does it take for that seed to grow? You can’t wait for that seed when you need [food] today.”

Low income families are typically juggling multiple demands, insecure housing, and complex health issues. Those ‘on welfare’ are commonly also juggling paid work and caring for others. These families are spending increasing amounts of time navigating overly administrative welfare processes designed to tighten eligibility. The assumption that those who are ‘cash poor’ are therefore ‘time rich’ is a mythology from the pre-precarity era.

Sissy, for example, provides care and support for her elderly mother, who requires transport to and from hospital for treatment, as well as for her grandchild who is in and out of hospital with a chronic respiratory illness. The effort involved in providing care for family members in hospital has absorbed much of her time and energy, and she has struggled to manage preparing and maintaining a garden as well. Despite this, she has a few plants (see below). However, as the image shows, the few additional vegetables it offers are not enough to adequately feed a growing family.

Sissy’s vegetable garden

Insecure housing is a key barrier to gardening for those on low incomes. The average private residential tenancy in New Zealand lasts just 15 months, with half of all tenancies ending before ten months and a third within six months. Recent NZ-based research shows that low income families in private rental accommodation are more likely to move house more often, which is stressful and time-consuming. In addition, moving house makes it difficult to create a garden which may yield produce too late to be useful to those who have invested in it.

Ginny expressed concern about planting trees as her Housing NZ tenancy is renewed every three years. Nevertheless, she has planted a small citrus plant, and hopes that she will remain there long enough to enjoy the fruit it produces.

Ginny’s citrus plant.

Using gardening as a solution to food insecurity reflects assumptions commonly made by people who are food-secure. In other words, growing your own food tends to work well when you are in a position to take risks with expenditure, have time and resources, good health, and a secure and suitable housing situation. These are the very resources that families living with food insecurity struggle to access.

In short, growing your own vegetables is not the panacea to food insecurity that many food-secure people think it is. Indeed, given the ongoing housing crisis and retrenchment of welfare, accessing food (and especially nutritious food) is likely to become more and more difficult. For many people living with poverty, maintaining a backyard vegetable garden is at best a top-up and is rarely a food source capable of sustaining a family.

When you consider the shortfall in people’s food budgets – the gap between what they need for a nutritional diet and what is available to spend – it is easy to see that merely implementing a backyard garden is not enough to ameliorate hunger.

Rebekah Graham is a PhD candidate at Massey University (Albany campus). Her research with families documents the lived experiences of food insecurity within the context of poverty. She lives in Hamilton with her husband, four children, and a very large orange cat.

Kimberly Jackson is a PhD candidate at the University of Waikato. Her research looks at the historical context of milk in New Zealand schools along with experiences of poverty and hunger in families today.

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