Food insecurity amidst abundance

Food Insecurity on the Coffs Coast

Nick Rose

This article first appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate, 9.7.11

Last time I wrote about the link between global malnutrition and agri-business profiteering, on the eve of Ugandan farmer Polly Apio’s visit to Bellingen. Now we learn of a looming famine that may affect 10 million people or more in the Horn of Africa. The immediate cause is failed harvests due to prolonged droughts, but the situation is made far worse by soaring commodity prices.

Food insecurity though isn’t only an issue for Africa and other regions in the Global South.

As at 2008, at least 2 million Australians fell into the category of being food insecure, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Those numbers have surely increased in the last three years, taking into account cost of living pressures.

A week ago, power bills in NSW rose by 18%. Between 2008 and 2013, average household electricity bills in this state will double, even without factoring in additional rises that will flow from the introduction of a carbon tax; and they are tipped to rise another 50% from 2013-2016.

For most of us, rising power bills, like rising fuel costs, mortgage payments, rents, and food prices, are something we can deal with. We don’t like it, but we can make adjustments in our household budgets, and at least some of the increased costs are offset by wage rises, or new jobs with better pay.

On the other hand, if you’re among the 2 million plus who are food insecure, these cost of living pressures are a matter of very serious concern.

Being food insecure means that sometimes or quite regularly you struggle to put good food on the table for you and your family. Australians on fixed and low incomes, such as recipients of Centrelink payments and part-time or casual workers in low paying jobs, are those who most likely fall into this category. Others at risk include individuals and families facing crisis situations, such as a job loss or a separation.

There are a number of charitable and government agencies on the Coffs Coast who provide emergency assistance to people in these situations. The Salvation Army, St Vincent’s Paul, Lifehouse Church, the Uniting Church, various Neighbourhood Centres and others are all staffed by teams of dedicated, committed and selfless individuals. They are doing everything in their power to alleviate the hardships of families and individuals facing hardship.

Most of these organisations depend on limited emergency voucher relief systems from the Federal and State Government. In addition, they mobilise their own resources through donations, of both money and food, and sales. Yet they are struggling to keep pace with the growing demand for their services.

This reflects the national trends. Research published in March this year by the Australian Council of Social Services revealed that charitable service providers nationwide have seen a 47% increase in the numbers of eligible people they have had to turn away, compared to the same survey conducted in 2008/9.

The tragic irony of rising food insecurity in a rich country that exports two-thirds of its agricultural products mirrors the bigger scandal of massive global malnutrition in a world of food abundance.

What makes it so much worse is that as much as 50% of all edible food in Australia – 7.5 million tonnes – is actually wasted. It ends up in landfill. Earlier this year Melbourne-based food rescue group SecondBite published research which showed that this food would provide three good meals a day, every day of the year, for over 13 million people.

Coffs Harbour is fortunate to count amongst its residents an inspirational lady by the name of Narelle Milton, who for the past 13 years has been running the Uniting Church soup kitchen in the city centre every week day. Her kitchen, and the food parcels offered by other providers, are now being supported through Food Bank initiatives operated by several supermarkets. This is a start towards redressing the scandals of food insecurity and food waste, but so much more needs to be done.

Next time an interview with Narelle, who received the Order of Australia in 2009 in recognition of her work, will be published in this column.