“I am Kurdish from west Iran,” Paria, a 48-year-old asylum seeker living in Melbourne, tells SBS. “I came to Australia a few years ago from Iran with my daughter and my husband.”
As Paria explains, when times were good back in Iran, she used to cook nutritious meals made with fresh meats, vegetables and rice for her entire family. She rarely ate processed food or take away unless a celebration called for a special treat. Food was always easy to come by without too much fuss. That was before she fled to Australia.
Like many other asylum seekers, Paria explains that – due to confidential reasons surrounding why she sought asylum – she arrived in Australia with nothing. Lacking work rights and unable to seek welfare payments, Paria and her family were dependent on basic handouts for survival.
“We were given a caseworker who gave us a $50 gift card, which was for the whole family for the week. She also showed us Woolworths and Coles.”
“We were given a case worker who gave us a $50 gift card, which was for the whole family for the week."
Although Paria is grateful to have received help, she recalls that it was hard to make ends meet and feed a family nutritious food on such a limited amount. Her saving grace was accessing the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) in Melbourne where she sourced additional foods to help make nutritious and culturally appropriate meals for her whole family.
ASRC's food bank - set up like a supermarket so people can choose what products to take - currently provides food for 220 households or around 650 people each week. “Under half of those are children and around 70 per cent don’t have any income at all,” ASRC’s community food program manager, Lisa Fitzgerald tells SBS. “That means they have no means to go to any other place for their groceries.”
The fact is that although the ASRC serves the Melbourne community well, food banks are not geographically accessible to every asylum seeker or refugee throughout Australia. The consequence is that without an income to buy food, many asylum seekers and refugees living in the Australian community go hungry or maintain a poor diet full of unhealthy but cheap processed meals.
“People seeking asylum may be socially isolated, experience unfamiliarity with local foods in Australia or they don’t have the English skills needed to navigate the food scene here,” Fitzgerald explains.
The link between access to food and poor health
A journal study conducted on ASRC food bank recipients, published in 2012, details the results of interviews with 21 asylum seekers over a six-week period. Researchers were told that although they had some access to vegetables, dairy, legumes and meat via the food bank, the ASRC was their only source of food. “A high level of nutritional vulnerability was seen in this cohort due to their inability to meet minimum nutritional requirements from their primary food access point,” the study reads.
“People seeking asylum may be socially isolated, experience unfamiliarity with local foods in Australia or they don’t have the English skills needed to navigate the food scene here.”
Fitzgerald says some refugees and asylum seekers don’t know how to cook the food collected from the food bank or don’t have access to a kitchen with cooking facility. Others may eat less than required because they can’t carry all the food needed back home from the food bank on public transport.
The Refugee Health Network Queensland adds that some refugees don’t have enough information or knowledge to make healthy food choices when in Australia.
The result of an inadequate or unhealthy diet is often poor nutrition and health. According to the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, the majority of refugees and asylum seekers in Australia have increased rates of infectious diseases, nutritional deficiencies like vitamin D deficiency, which is common in the migrant population, oral health issues and undiagnosed or under-treated chronic illnesses.
Why good food is so important for everyone
But having access to quality food is not just about maintaining a good level of nutrition and fending off hunger.
Paria, who is now a volunteer at the ASRC food bank, explains that food is also essential in offering refugees and asylum seekers a sense of cultural comfort. Eating fresh food also provides a path back to the memories of healthy, home-cooked meals just like the ones Paria used to make back in Iran.
“I talk to a lot of refugees here at the ASRC and they say that when they get access to food, they get hope,” Paria says. “They become so happy because, to many refugees and people seeking asylum, food is just so important.”
Fitzgerald adds that for asylum seekers, access to nutritious food is also a human right. “Food is also something that we all need to have to survive and a need that everyone can relate to,” Fitzgerald says.
“So no matter where you stand on the politics of asylum seekers and refugees, food is a reality that we all understand. And we all have a right to have food in our belly and to be healthy.”
For more details on the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre's (ASRC) food bank, visit ASRC online.