• New 2017 nationwide data, collected by QUT, suggests that 1 in 3 Australian households on a low and middle income lacks access to sufficient food. (iStockphoto)
Hunger: It's the hidden problem facing middle income families, too. Recent research reveals that middle income families, who are struggling with living costs, may also regularly lack access to food.
By
Yasmin Noone

24 Jul 2018 - 12:49 PM  UPDATED 16 Oct 2018 - 8:47 AM

The number of families worrying about where their next meal will come from may be worse than first thought, with a recent study showing that food insecurity doesn’t just affect low-income households but middle income families right across Australia.

And has prompted the Big Banana in Coffs Harbour to be covered in a black banner that reads "hunger in the country is a big problem".

Nationwide data, collected by Queensland University of Technology in 2017, suggests that one in every three Australian households on a low and middle income lacks access to sufficient food.

The QUT findings, which were presented by food insecurity researcher Professor Danielle Gallegos at the 2018 Dietitians Association of Australia National Conference, shows that six per cent of children in families affected by food insecurity go hungry at least once every fortnight.

“It’s shocking that we have children in Australia who go hungry when there is so much food available. Yet many families just can’t access this food."

Prof Gallegos, an Accredited Practising Dietitian, says that’s equal to around 400,000 kids who suffer from hunger because they lack access to nutritious food on a regular basis.

“It’s shocking that we have children in Australia who go hungry when there is so much food available. Yet many families just can’t access this food,” Prof Gallegos tells SBS.

“Food insecurity is not just a problem for the ‘working poor’. It occurs in families with a median income of $40,000-$60,000 a year, single and dual-parent families, working multiple jobs to pay off the essentials.”

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She says many households facing food insecurity may spend most of their disposable wage on energy bills and housing costs – paying mortgage or rent bills that have become increasingly unaffordable. As food is the only flexible item in the budget, food is what families may sacrifice.

“The other issue is that families on middle incomes don’t usually have a health care card and are not eligible to receive support from welfare agencies [for food or financial assistance]. So on paper they look okay but they don’t have access to emergency help or resources if they need it.”

“Food insecurity is not just a problem for the ‘working poor’. It occurs in families with a median income of $40,000-$60,000 a year, single and dual-parent families, working multiple jobs to pay off the essentials.”

Prof Gallegos says that the new 2017 QUT figures are higher than those included in the Australian Health Survey (2011-13), which found that four per cent of households nationwide faced food insecurity.

She reasons that 2017 figures may be higher because the QUT study used a new tool to measurement tool, which expanded the definition of food insecurity beyond whether people had enough money to eat.

Instead, it used four key criteria to judge whether a household is ‘food insecure’. The tool considered whether food was available to buy locally; if families had enough money for food (including nutritious food) and transport to get to the shops to buy food; and whether households had the skills and equipment needed to consistently cook good meals.

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The 2017 research follows on from a 2009 QUT study of around 500 low-income households in Brisbane, which revealed that almost 20 per cent of families were food insecure. 

Hunger relief organisation, Foodbank, estimates that 15 percent or 3.6 million Australians have experienced food insecurity at least once in the last 12 months. The Foodbank Hunger Report 2017 shows that three in five of these individuals experiencing food insecurity at least once a month.

The report also suggests that food insecurity is not restricted to those on low incomes, the unemployed or homeless.

“In fact, almost half of food insecure Australians (48 per cent) are employed in some way, whether full-time, part-time or casually,” the report reads. "Our youngest members of the community are also impacted, as dependent children live in 40 per cent of food insecure households.”

“In fact, almost half of food insecure Australians (48 per cent) are employed in some way, whether full-time, part-time or casually."

What does a ‘food insecure family’ in Australia look like?

According to Prof Gallegos, the first stage of food insecurity is that parents may start worrying where their family’s next meal will come from.

“Adults might cut the size of their meals back or eat their kids’ leftovers instead of having their own meal [because of financial concerns],” she says.

“A family may also limit the variety of foods they eat. These families might not call themselves ‘food insecure’ but, for example, all they may eat are sausages. The parents will say ‘our family loves sausages’ but that’s really all they can afford to eat.

“The last stage of food insecurity is that the parents and children will both go hungry.”

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One consequence of food insecurity, says Gallegos, is poor health over the long-term.

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, people from lower social or economic communities (in general) face a greater risk of poor health than those who are more advantaged. Data from 2014-15 shows that around 20 per cent of Australians living in the lowest socioeconomic areas were 1.6 times as likely as the highest 20 per cent to have at least two chronic health conditions, like heart disease and diabetes.

“We need to do better at making sure that people in our community are not going hungry and that everyone is being fed well,” Prof Gallegos says. “We need to know that hunger exists in our communities.”

A growing number of Australians are going hungry. CEO of Foodbank, Australia’s largest hunger relief organisation, talks to SBS's Insight about the issue of food insecurity. Watch the episode below on SBS On Demand. 

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