Parents in low income families are always being told that they’re making bad choices in the supermarket; many wealthy or comfortable families seem to believe they’d be better able to survive and thrive. But, as Rebekah Graham explains, her research with New Zealand families shows what’s really happening.
To protect the privacy of research participants, pseudonyms are used throughout this article.
Lea walks 45 minutes from her small flat to access the closest and cheapest supermarket. At her weekly shop she selects filling, inexpensive items that require minimal power to cook (such as tinned fruit), will last the week without perishing or needing refrigeration (such as the UHT milk), and can be used to make a complete meal (the bacon-and-egg pies, for example, can be microwaved to create one hot meal per pie). At the checkout, Lea has to return several items in order to stay within her meagre budget. The checkout operator treats Lea with barely concealed contempt. Such judgements make an already difficult task even more distressing.
With little food in the house, the groceries from this shopping trip will be all that is available to feed Lea and her teenage daughter for the week. Along with Anna, who I introduced here, Lea’s shopping trip exemplifies the reality of day-to-day survival for many low-income New Zealand families today.
Nestled between a dollar loaf of bread and a tin of home-brand peaches in Lea’s shopping trolley is a small, inexpensive cake. Lea has brought this for a neighbour who has recently lost their parents. Despite not having enough funds to purchase every item in her trolley, Lea keeps the cake, delivering it to the family on the way home. This small act of care indicates the important social role of food and that food-related choices are not just about nutrition and sustenance. Being able to host or gift food to others is essential to social relationships and well-being. In choosing to purchase – and gift – the cake, Lea is able to contribute to the care of a neighbour, and in doing so reinforces her sense of self as a contributing member of society.
Available food choices for Lea are constrained by the cost of the power required to cook and store food. She is not alone in having few food choices. Recent NZ-based research shows that low-income families are typically having to choose between food and heating the family home, decide whether there is enough food for all or just the children [PDF], or choose between paying for health-related items such as prescriptions or purchasing food [PDF]. Some parents even report taking sleeping medications when the children are away on weekends so as not to risk eating precious food resources.
Parents on low incomes are often berated for making ‘poor choices’ when it comes to food. Proposed solutions typically include nutrition education classes and/or cooking programmes. Such ideas, while well-intentioned, overlook existing research which shows that people living with poverty already have healthy food aspirations, are more concerned with stretching available resources, and often have other, more pressing, matters to worry about, such as making rent. While many low-income parents are aware that the food they are buying is not ideal, their options are constrained by their low budgets [PDF]. Lea’s diet of cheap carbs is a realistic response to ongoing hardship. All the nutrition education in the world won’t give people like Lea and Anna the ongoing resources that they need to be able to purchase better quality food.
Meeting nutritional guidelines is difficult on limited means. The University of Otago 2016 Food Cost Survey shows the expected weekly spend required in order to meet basic nutritional needs. For an adult woman, the required spend is $55 a week. On the week we went shopping, Lea had just $25 for her weekly groceries. Choosing to fill empty bellies as best as possible while stretching insufficient funds is a key survival strategy. Belittling the food choices of people who simply cannot afford to follow nutritional guidelines further isolates and stigmatises people in an already stressful situation.
Growing numbers of New Zealanders frequently have no choice but to rely on the charity of others to eat [PDF]. Charitable food provisions such as foodbanks typically offer limited food choices to people in need. The commonly accepted proviso is that beggars can’t be choosers. Lea survives thanks to a local charitable meal (pictured below). She walks 45 minutes (each way) to access what is often her only ‘proper’ meal each day. The community meal offers more than just food. It provides an inclusive community space for otherwise excluded people. The creation of a welcoming space provides the opportunity for people such as Lea to engage in positive social interaction over a hot, filling meal. Humanising spaces such as the meal help to alleviate the social isolation experienced by low-income families alongside hunger and food insecurity.
There is a fundamental contradiction between the societal dictate that “beggars can’t be choosers” and nutritional advice that people in hardship simply need to “make better food choices”. Food insecurity is a far-reaching social issue that is not reducible to notions of individual choice. Indeed, blaming individuals for not growing their own vegetables or for making “poor choices” on limited means merely perpetuates the shame and stigma associated with food scarcity.
In a country flowing with milk and produce, it is shameful that we no longer ensure that all citizens can access sufficient nutritious food for themselves and their families.
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.