Food insecurity in the Covid pandemic – Expert Q+A

How has the ongoing pandemic affected access to affordable, healthy food in Aotearoa?

Stats NZ has announced the consumer price of goods and services grew 4.9 per cent over the year – marking the biggest quarterly rise since the 1980s and the biggest annual rise for a decade. Vegetable prices rose 19 percent, influenced by higher prices for tomatoes, lettuce, and broccoli. The cost of veggies was the second largest contributor to rising inflation.

The SMC asked experts about trends in the current state of food security.

Emeritus Professor Elaine Rush, Professor of Nutrition, Auckland University of Technology, comments:

What trends are we seeing in food insecurity and the pandemic’s impact?

“Inequity is a long term and increasing problem in Aotearoa New Zealand, and one vital sign of inequity is food security. It is complex and there is no easy solution – but that does not mean we do nothing.

“The number of households where food runs out due to lack of money was high before COVID-19 and has worsened particularly in Auckland as COVID-19 impacts most on those who have the least.

“Food bank usage has more than doubled but that is the tip of the problem – many are going without food or surviving on poor quality foods.

“Along with overall price increases, vegetable prices increased 19 per cent in the last month. International supply chains are disrupted.

“Climate change effects such as floods (e.g., Kumeu, Gisborne, Greymouth) impact food production and will continue to do so.

“We know that nutrition from the start of life impacts on health for the rest of that life. For example, research from the Pacific Islands families study showed that that food insecurity during pregnancy is associated with more fat and less muscle in boys at age 14 years.”

What food is coming into Aotearoa, what are we exporting and how much do we produce? Does this play a role in food insecurity?

“We are privileged in New Zealand because we produce more food than the team of five million can eat – yet we have a high burden of nutrition-related disease.

“The NZ food-based dietary guidelines recommend that five servings of vegetables be consumed each day. Dietary diversity is key to healthy diets and that includes diversity in vegetables.

“The FAO has identified 10 food diversity groups to be available and consumed for adequate micronutrient nutrition and food security. Five of these groups are vegetables: legumes, starchy staple foods, dark-green-leafy vegetables, other vitamin-A rich fruits and vegetables, and other vegetables.

“Although Aotearoa produces enough vegetables to provide 12 servings a day to 5 million people, these vegetables are mainly potatoes, onions, carrots and squash (total 7.7 servings/day/NZ person). Most onions, squash and some potatoes were exported (2.5 servings/day/NZ person) and there was inadequate production of legumes (0.6 servings/day/NZ person) and dark green leafy vegetables such as spinach and silver beet (0.03 servings/day/NZ person).

“Only 0.2 per cent of the total land area of New Zealand is used for growing vegetables.

“An environmentally sustainable and diverse supply of vegetables for domestic use needs to be strategically and actively protected in New Zealand.

“Food is not a commodity; it is a necessity. Our food based dietary guidelines with a sustainability focus should be the yardstick for all food policy and action.

“But my research has shown before COVID-19 we imported large quantities of refined wheat, sugar, rice and pasta (mainly carbohydrate, nutrient-poor food) and we exported vast quantities of dairy, beef, lamb, kiwifruit, apples, onions and potatoes.

“Our food system should be reoriented to ensure that in New Zealand people are fed first with the diverse foods that we are privileged to be able to produce on our precious whenua (land). Policies need to be nutrition-sensitive at all points in the value-chain and make sure that dietary gaps are filled.

“Good nutrition is fundamental to human health, physical and cognitive development and well-nourished individuals are better prepared to break away from intergenerational poverty. Unhealthy diet is the most important factor that contributes to the global burden of disease, and it is not about calories or protein.”

What measures do you think could be taken to curb this trend?

“The child cannot wait for food. Every day matters. So how about we have a food target to leave no child behind and to ensure that we share what we have?

“Think of a healthy diet as protection and necessary for a healthy life. If those over 65 years old got the vaccine first and a winter heating payment on top of their benefit, how about all beneficiaries aged 65 and under receive a Covid food allowance now for every member of the household?

“National food security is about everyone having access to wholesome and diverse foods. Access is not just geographic, it is about having enough income to be able to afford food, to have an understanding of healthy foods and to be protected from exposure to unhealthy fake-foods e.g., sugary drinks. Taxes and subsidies should be considered. Our farmers need support to produce the food that we need.

“Food and nutrition security is defined to exist ‘when all people at all times have physical, social and economic access to food of sufficient quantity and quality in terms of variety, diversity, nutrient content and safety to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life, coupled with a sanitary environment, adequate health, education and care’.”

No conflict of interest.

Dr Sarah Gerritsen, Senior Research Fellow in the School of Population Health and Associate Director of Growing Up in New Zealand, University of Auckland, comments:

What trends are we seeing in food insecurity and the pandemic’s impact?

“The pandemic has heightened the pre-existing issue of insecure access to healthy food, particularly among children in Aotearoa. With schools and early childhood centres closed during Covid Alert Levels 3 and 4, children who would usually receive food from teachers or breakfast and lunch programmes have missed out on this vital nutritional support.

“The Ka Ora Ka Ako school lunch programme has been feeding about a quarter of all children this year, but it has had to divert some of its funding to MSD’s food support network, where it is now needed. The Fruit and Vegetables in Schools initiative that provides fresh fruit or vegetables for each student every day has diverted this produce to food charities in the wider Auckland region. Families are struggling to provide enough high-quality food throughout the day for their children at home, and so have turned in record numbers to food banks and other organisations for help.”

Why is food security and good nutrition so important?

“The current surge in food insecurity is concerning because our research at the Growing Up in New Zealand study has shown this has immediate and long-term consequences for children’s health. Children who live in households that use food banks or get food grants often miss out on the nutrition needed for healthy development, with younger children most at risk.

“Compared to most New Zealand children, children facing food insecurity eat less fruit and vegetables, are less likely to eat breakfast at home before school, and have more ultra-processed foods and fizzy drinks (which are nutrient-poor and energy-dense, filling them up but not providing the nutrition needed). Good nutrition assists the body to fight illness and helps establish long-term eating habits and preferences that can protect against disease. Missing out on food is also a miserable experience, making it difficult for children to learn, play and be happy.”

What can be done to curb this trend?

“Providing free food during this tough time is a compassionate and vital short-term response. There is no need for anyone in Aotearoa New Zealand to go hungry, so the incredible logistical effort to redivert food to those most in need must be applauded.

“But food banks can’t solve the problem and food insecurity won’t disappear at the end of lockdown. Not having enough income or money left for food after paying for fixed living costs, such as housing and power, is the cause of food insecurity. This situation is exacerbated by rising rents and house prices, low benefits, insecure work and low wages – entrenched issues in our economy. Families with young children are at most risk of food insecurity because that’s a key time in life when finances are limited. We must ensure that the Government adequately supports families with children while creating a fair, resilient and health-promoting food system.”

No conflicts of interest.