How many Australians are going hungry? We don’t know for sure, and that’s a big part of the problem
Growing numbers of Australians are reported to be struggling to put enough healthy food on the table every day as the cost of living soars. But Australia doesn’t collect enough data on food insecurity. The lack of data makes it difficult for policymakers to grasp the extent of the problem, let alone take effective action to solve it.
Food insecurity can range from being anxious about not having enough food in the house, to eating cheaper, less healthy foods due to a lack of money, to regularly skipping meals and going hungry.
Estimates from before 2020 suggested between 4% and 13% of the general Australian population were food insecure and 22% to 32% of the Indigenous population, depending on location. A recent study found levels of food insecurity are worse than before the COVID pandemic.
In Australia, food insecurity is usually due to financial hardship. This can be a result of low wages, unexpected bills, or inadequate government support payments.
Food insecurity has a powerful influence on health. It leads to worse physical and mental health in both adults and children. And the impacts get worse as the severity of food insecurity increases.
‘I’m scared we won’t have money for food’: how children cope with food insecurity in Australia
Some Australians turn to food charity for temporary relief. But little is being done to change the root causes of food insecurity.
In response, Australia’s leading food insecurity researchers have joined forces to develop the Household Food Security Data Consensus Statement. To be launched on December 14, the statement calls for Australia to use a reliable and internationally comparable measure of food insecurity. It proposes using the full-length, 18-question United States Department of Agriculture Household Food Security Survey Module.
If you don’t measure it, you can’t mend it
Having enough food is a basic human right. Yet despite Australia producing enough food for three times its population size, not all Australians have enough.
Federal, state and territory governments do not regularly measure and report on food insecurity. This leaves researchers, organisations and policymakers short of information about Australians experiencing food insecurity.
The information we have has been collected using many different measurement tools. This means we can’t easily compare the results.
And these existing tools often underestimate the true level of food insecurity. This is because they don’t ask enough questions about the range of experiences of food insecurity, such as eating poor-quality food, or worrying about running out of food.
‘If only they made better life choices’ – how simplistic explanations of poverty and food insecurity miss the mark
To fill the gap, we often turn to data collected by the emergency and community food sector. However, food security policy and government responses must be supported by independent, rigorous data collection. That’s the only way to ensure we have an accurate picture of food insecurity in the whole population.
Without this data, people in power seem to have no motivation to act in a timely way to prevent Australians experiencing food insecurity.
Hunger in the lucky country – charities step in where government fails
What can be done about these problems?
Other high-income countries, like Canada and the USA, have regular and reliable monitoring systems. These countries measure food insecurity every one to two years. Their reliable data enable them to respond with targeted policies.
Australia can learn from these countries. Regular, high-quality data about food insecurity will support action at all levels of society. It will help ensure policy responses are timely and targeted.
The solutions are many and varied. Actions might include:
collaborations at the local level – for example, Western Australia’s Food Community project is working with community members to develop place-based solutions in different regions
emergency food relief
school-based initiatives such as meal programs that provide food and help children understand healthy eating
education programs that develop nutrition knowledge and cooking skills in people at risk of food insecurity
broad policy interventions, including increasing government support payments.
Australian schools are starting to provide food, but we need to think carefully before we ‘ditch the lunchbox’
A call to properly monitor food insecurity in Australia
Regular national monitoring of food insecurity will mean we have enough good information about Australians’ experiences of food insecurity. We can then use this information to take action that helps those struggling to afford basic necessities like food.
The consensus statement being issued this week will be used in conversations with people in positions of power to shine a light on the importance of measuring food insecurity.
The US Household Food Security Survey Module recommended in the statement is a freely available measurement tool. It takes a few minutes to complete, has been translated into several languages and is relatively easy to use. Importantly, it can measure food insecurity in households with both adults and children.
We know food insecurity is a growing problem in Australia. What we need now is for all levels of government to commit to regularly monitoring food insecurity. Only then can targeted responses be developed.
No one in Australia should go hungry.