8 Jul 2019

Cash-strapped parents stressed about providing food - report

5:50 am on 8 July 2019

One in five children are living in households where putting food on the table is a struggle, according to a new report from the Ministry of Health.

Warm food for the poor and homeless.

Food insecurity could mean families that could not afford to eat properly, ran out of food, ate less, had less variety in their diets or used food grants or food banks. Photo: 123rf.com

It found that many parents were stressed and anxious about providing food, or were forced to rely on charities or emergency assistance, because of a lack of money.

The report said almost 20 percent of children aged 0 to 14 were living in households experiencing moderate to severe food insecurity.

That could mean families that could not afford to eat properly, ran out of food because of lack of money, ate less, had less variety in their diets, relied on others for food, or used food grants or food banks.

Rates of household food insecurity were higher among children in low income households, those living in the most deprived neighbourhoods, and Māori and Pacific children, the report said.

Children in food-insecure households had poorer health and nutrition, higher rates of being overweight or obesity, as well as behavioural or developmental difficulties.

Parents in food-insecure households reported higher rates of psychological and parenting stress, as well as poorer self-rated health status.

Solo mum-of-two Josephine* is on a benefit.

Her budget is tight, so when she's hit with an unexpected bill or trip to the doctor, what she spends on food will be squeezed.

"I can't just say to the landlord, 'I'm only going to pay you $400 instead of $450, because I need the $50 for petrol'. It's always robbing Peter to pay Paul and I feel like it's the food budget that always gets robbed," she said.

When she's at the supermarket, Josephine said her income means her choices are limited.

"It means I'm shopping with money in mind, instead of health, it means that I can't give my children what I know is best for them and it means that I eat last."

Josephine said it does not feel good to have to make those sorts of choices.

"It erodes your self-confidence for sure because your number one for the kids is food and shelter. It's basic survival."

Auckland City Mission general manager of social services Helen Robinson said they have seen a 40 percent increase in demand for food this financial year, compared to last year.

Those seeking help included single people, beneficiaries and working families.

Ms Robinson said the Auckland City Mission had done research with economist Alan Johnson on the day-to-day costs of a single parent family of three living in Auckland.

He looked at a parent working 40 hours a week on the minimum wage and factored in things like rent, electricity and transport.

Once all those costs were added together, the family was left with $6.43 per meal to survive on.

"That's simply not enough in today's society to provide enough good quality food for people," Ms Robinson said.

"It means that kids can't learn at school, it means that parents struggle to be productive during a work day, it impacts relationships, it creates a pervasive, negative effect on people's lives."

Massey University lecturer Rebekah Graham said a lack of money leaves some families opting for cheaper, starchy food, over fresh meat and vegetables.

"Things like $1 pasta, $1 loaves of bread, noodles, that are inexpensive, but also people like to eat. If you know the kids are going to eat a sandwich, you end up buying the sort of foods that aren't too expensive, but also that will be eaten."

Dr Graham said that has implications for children's health and nutrition.

"You're not really getting enough nutrition, children are growing and while they might get enough calories in terms of the calorie content of food, they're not always getting the amount of nutrition they need with that food."

Lifting incomes and benefit levels, looking at a universal school lunch programme and tackling housing affordability were all ways to ease the burden of food insecurity on families, Dr Graham said.

*Not her real name