By Ruth Limkin
Published in the Courier Mail 23 September 2011
Food: It’s a big topic at the moment.
The report of policy being developed by the Opposition, which could lead to a creation of a network of dams, and increased agricultural production in the north of Australia, is heartening news for Australia’s food security future. At the same time, there’s political turmoil about whether there is, or is not, a food crisis in some remote Australian communities.
Why there’s even an argument about whether there’s a crisis is much to do with the extreme levels of complexity involved with such problems, why they exist, and what can be done about them.
Hunger isn’t as easy to solve as one may first think, even in the suburbs.
For example, I could hand someone a food parcel, and that parcel could contain all of the ingredients to make meals for a family for a week. However, that person may have never been taught how to make a meal from scratch. They may not have learnt how to follow a recipe, or may not be able to read. They may not have the right cooking equipment to prepare those meals. Few of those challenges are the type of things governments can solve, particularly in the immediate.
We often subtly abdicate the responsibility of caring for our neighbour, and sometimes of caring for ourselves, to the government. Yet governments are best when they provide a framework in to live, rather than teaching us how to live. Learning how to live is best done in families, or in community. A community that takes responsibility for itself, and for caring for the needy within it, is a community that is functioning effectively.
For this reason, the charity I work for, Nexus Care, researched both community need and community resources when we redesigned the programs we’re delivering. We made the decision to move away from a crisis relief food parcel program and towards a medium term nutritional support program. As many would know, one of the difficulties in delivery strategically effective public benevolent programs is the lack of information about those you are hoping to assist.
To help us with this, our community nutritionist embedded data collection into the food program induction. The initial simple analysis of household information we’re now collecting is a glimpse into the complexities of food security, including why children go hungry in suburban Australia.
For example, of the households who have accessed our program in the last 6 months, 89% had an oven, but only 55% had an oven dish. 88% of households had a stove, but only 69% had pots or pans to use on that stove.
They may seem like strange statistics to highlight, but consider what you do when you make a meal at night. Without the right equipment to use a stove or an oven, your ability to produce a meal for you and your children is severely diminished. After all, how can one make a meal from scratch without the tools to do so? Additionally, only 57% of households had any storage containers, so there’s less likelihood that leftovers can be used later in that week.
As much as households can be hindered by a lack of equipment, there can also be a capacity issue which is at play in terms of food security.
Nearly 80% of households were unemployed, so limited financial capacity can make the purchase of groceries a challenge, with 49% of recipients reporting they spend less than $80 a week on household groceries.
The capacity to cook a meal is another issue. In terms of education levels, 67% of recipients in Fresh Start reported they had a year 10 certificate, or less, in terms of formal education. Around half of those recipients hadn’t completed Year 10. Without the ability to take ingredients and create a meal, either because of low literacy levels, or never having been taught how to follow a recipe, you’re less concerned with how to ‘plate up’ a meal, and more concerned with how to simply prepare one.
Education (formal and otherwise); employment; equipment – some of the many facets of food security in Australian households. Government initiatives can help address some of these, but in the end, community development is best done by community. When caring individuals care for individuals, the slow and steady work of transformational change begins – and its potential is unlimited.
Special thanks to Murray Averill for asking me to start Nexus Care.
Tax deductible donations to Nexus Care’s Fresh Start program are always welcomed with gratitude.