The government has responded to calls for additional support for financially precarious New Zealanders with extra-funding for food banks. But community groups and advocates say it’s not a viable solution to the problem.
The lead-up to Christmas is always a busy time for food banks, but the last few months have seen an unprecedented surge in demand for free kai across the country.
As part of a support package announced this month for Auckland, the centre of the current outbreak, the government has put up an additional $12 million to help the city’s food banks and community food organisations. MBIE estimated that this could translate to roughly 84,000 food parcels. The minister for social development and employment, Carmel Sepuloni, said this was to provide immediate support to “families experiencing real deprivation”.
But some community workers say the focus on food banks that has dominated the government’s response to Covid-19 hardship is addressing the symptom, rather than the cause.
It follows previous government support concentrated on food banks during the pandemic.
In May 2020, the government announced a $32 million investment to provide support over two years for food banks, food rescue and other community organisations distributing food to people with food insecurity. At the beginning of the current delta outbreak, the government directed $7 million to food banks across the country.
Food banks are not a solution to poverty, says Brooke Pao Stanley, who heads welfare advocacy group Auckland Action Against Poverty. Addressing the needs of those living in precarity means addressing structural issues: liveable incomes, affordable housing, racial inequality and more, she says.
As more and more New Zealanders face financial insecurity, “it shouldn’t fall on food banks to provide food security for people and whānau in Aotearoa,” she says.
In a press statement last week, the Green Party criticised the decision to centre support for struggling Aucklanders on food banks. Green MP Ricardo Mendez characterised the emphasis on food banks as a “sticking plaster on a gaping wound of systemic inequality”.
“We’re finding that the need is a lot greater, but also the support systems aren’t there,” Pao Stanley says. Social support systems put in place during the 2020 lockdown – like rent freezes, increased winter energy payment and making access to food grants and emergency accommodation easier – weren’t reenacted this year.
Because of the government’s unwillingness to pull the same levers this time around, contrasting with the support available for businesses, Stanley Pao says “it’s continually frustrating to hear the government say they’re doing enough”.
Danielle Le Gallais runs Sunday Blessings, a food bank charity she co-founded that operates from central Auckland. Every Sunday evening, rain, hail or shine, the volunteers provide meals to more than 150 people facing food insecurity in the city. “If people have found our details online and they’re ringing me for food, there’s something undeniably wrong with the system,” she says.
Sunday Blessings hasn’t received any additional support from the government during this outbreak. And despite the government funding going to food banks around the city, Le Gallais says she hasn’t seen any knock-on effects when it comes to taking the pressure off their already strained service. In fact, their lines only grew longer during lockdown.
“It hasn’t made a difference because our numbers have gotten higher and we’ve actually had new faces coming to us too,” she says.
Along with the increasing numbers of people relying on Sunday Blessings’ free meals during lockdown, the impacts of the outbreak created more difficulties. Supermarket purchasing restrictions made it difficult to buy in bulk, businesses had less surplus food and, perhaps most notably, the majority of their volunteers dropped off due to the risk of the virus.
“The quality of our food has gone downhill dramatically over the lockdown period because I’ve had no volunteers for cooking,” she says. Other than help from a church group and local school pastor with sourcing food and supplying home baking, for most of the lockdown, cooking and serving was done by Le Gallais and her 15-year-old son – tasks usually shared among various households and individual volunteers. It meant a switch from their usual hot home-cooked meals, sandwiches, fruits and baking to less nutritious but more convenient food like pizzas.
She’s frustrated at the lack of secure support for food banks, despite the government seemingly relying on them to respond to inequality. “If we’re used as one of the systems to address the poverty that’s going on right now, then they need to know how our system works and what we need and come and talk to us,” she says.
The government, she says, needs to provide more than just ad hoc boosts of money to organisations. She’d like to see action in terms of social and physical infrastructure as well, such as funding for community fridges and pantries or working towards legislative frameworks around supermarket food wastage. “If we had a community pantry in the city,” she says, “it would alleviate the stresses that all the food pantries are feeling because it’s a 24/7 drop-in place to pick up your food.”
The other problem with outsourcing the growing problem of food insecurity to charities? The people behind the scenes are struggling too – and very often it’s Māori and Pasifika women keeping these initiatives going, Le Gallais says. A single mother of two who’s busy studying law at AUT on the side, Le Gallais says that food bank workers “are actually struggling ourselves. We’re all struggling to pay rent, we’re all struggling to keep our homes clean because we’re frontline.”
Ideally, Le Gallais would like for food organisations like hers to become obsolete. Rather than just propping up food banks, which she describes as “ambulance at the bottom of the cliff”, she’d like to see decision makers support changes that empower marginalised communities in more holistic ways. “We’ve actually got better things that we could be doing with our time,” she says. “We want to make systemic change.”
Beyond being a human rights issue, Stanley Pao believes the decision to limit government support for vulnerable people to food banks makes little sense from a public health perspective. “We can’t ask these people and communities, in the span of a couple of months, to turn around and trust the very institutions that have actually caused so much harm,” she says.
“It was an opportunity to build some kind of trust,” she says. By supporting vulnerable communities to cover rent, bills and food, she believes the government would have ensured better compliance with alert level rules and higher vaccination uptake. Instead she feels they’ve done the opposite.
“Beggars can’t be choosers,” a phrase coined in the 1500s, well before state welfare even existed, is the mantra that sits behind the government’s preoccupation with outsourcing to food banks, says Le Gallais.
Even though her food bank strives to provide as much choice as possible when serving food, it’s still a limiting model. She reiterates that our most vulnerable do in fact deserve to be choosers, especially when it comes to kai; food autonomy is a key part of maintaining people’s dignity.
“In Asian, Māori, Pacific cultures, giving small amounts of food is not a good thing,” she says. “Having a full belly, a hearty meal, and connection over food is what you’re really aiming for. It’s not just just the sustenance, you know.”
The political decision to direct people who are struggling towards food banks, rather than striving to give them self-determination, neglects the important wellbeing functions of food where people have differing tastes, allergies, dislikes, cultural traditions and dietary requirements, she says. Instead, it’s a one-dimensional view of food that’s simply about survival.
“These are people that have lived lives and survived lives that we couldn’t even dream of,” she says. “And then they have to line up for food and just be grateful for it?”