By Farah Hancock for RNZ
People are starving, even though New Zealand produces enough food to feed 40 million people – and it is calling on the country to “feed the five million first”.
Nearly 40 percent of adults and 19 percent of children in New Zealand do not have enough to eat.
Poverty researcher Dr Rebekah Graham said that while working on her dissertation on food insecurity, she interviewed a woman who walked 90 minutes every day to get a free community meal.
‘That was her only meal of the day. It was all she ate.’
Others went out to make sure their kids had food, or tried to constantly stretch food to make it more meals, she said.
Graham said the people she interviewed had a stark acceptance that this was normal.
“They would have loved high-quality meat and they would have liked to have fresh fruits and vegetables on a regular basis.”
About 33 percent of New Zealand adults say they face moderate food insecurity, experience uncertainty about whether they will have enough food, or choose cheaper, often nutritionally poor, products.
About 7 percent of New Zealanders experience severe food insecurity, meaning they are out of food and without food for a day or more.
For a long time, it was mostly beneficiaries who experienced food insecurity, but that had changed, Graham said.
“You have minimum wage families, who pay market rent, who have to live in the city because that’s where their jobs are. Some of these people are essential workers, so you need them in a city if you want your city to function. And if the cost of living continues to rise, but your wages don’t, and when the rent skyrockets, the food budget will be curtailed.”
New Zealand produces enough food to feed 40 million people and exports much of that, including $16 billion in dairy, $3.7 billion in beef and $3.9 billion in mutton a year.
Export prices often drive up food prices in New Zealand.
Auckland University of Technology Emeritus Professor of Nutrition Elaine Rush said she’d seen New Zealand fruits and vegetables selling cheaper in Britain than here.
Rush has linked data on food and drink exports and imports to nutritional needs and said what she discovered was an eye-opener.
She said we export nutrient-dense proteins and fats and import foods that aren’t great from a nutritional standpoint, such as carbohydrates and sugars.
As a result, we are fat, starving or starving in a land of plenty, she said.
In a paper on the topic, she suggests, “A country that can produce more than enough high-quality food must feed its own food first.”
After the New Zealanders had enough good quality food, “can we really start thinking about caring for the rest of the world because the trickle-down effect hasn’t worked, right?”
“All this money we get from these exports doesn’t seem to make it any easier for those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder,” she said.
Rush said the food production sector needed to be “refocused” and questioned whether New Zealand, with a growing population, was producing enough vegetables to provide everyone with five servings a day.
While there are a number of initiatives, such as community gardens, food banks and even programs to spread food waste among hungry people, Graham said each had its pros and cons and most failed to address the root of the problem – a lack of money.
“We need to rethink how we distribute wealth across the country so that all of our citizens can do well.”
How this reorientation might work in practice was another matter.
One study modeled the effect of introducing taxes on unhealthy foods, such as sugar, while subsidizing the cost of fruits and vegetables by 20 percent. It found that such a schedule would yield significant health benefits.
There have also been calls for a National Food Strategy.
The Aotearoa Circle, a think tank with public and private partners, is tackling a strategy and has appointed KPMG as its secretariat.
KPMG’s global head of agribusiness Ian Proudfoot leads the project and has a personal interest in good nutrition.
In 2017 he had a heart attack and during his recovery he met many people with a heart condition. After his heart attack, he was able to change his diet, but many people he met couldn’t afford it.
“Our food system is currently delivering very poor health outcomes for many New Zealanders. The statistics are well known. We have some of the worst numbers worldwide – and especially among developed countries – on things like obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Our food system has undoubtedly put considerable strain on some of our natural resources, especially our water.”
New Zealand’s food exports netted the country $46.6 billion in the 12 months to February, and that scale of food production made things complicated, he said.
“We have a food system that is incredibly complex compared to most countries and especially compared to any other developed country because we rely so heavily on it to create our wealth.”
What started as a food strategy has grown into a much bigger task, Proudfoot said.
It soon became clear that there was a need for an understanding of the role of food in our country and of any strategy needed to look not only at issues like food security, but also at the economy, environment and culture.
“If you’re looking for an ocean to cook in, it’s this one. It traverses almost every ministerial portfolio — there are 31 primary government agencies with a role in the food system.”
The group had already spoken to some government agencies. Some were more receptive than others, Proudfoot said.
The idea of ”feeding the five million first” has also been floated at agricultural rallies and it resonated with the industry, Proudfoot said.
Rather than use legislation to enforce such a concept, the industry could apply it to ensure the New Zealand brand has a good story to tell, Proudfoot suggested.
Food insecurity wouldn’t be solved in a year or two, he said, but over time the best-case scenario was a New Zealand food system that was environmentally sustainable and provided New Zealand with the nutrition for good health at an affordable price. It would also create prosperity for the country.
“The worst case scenario is that we continue on our current path, but our ability to access premium markets is increasingly compromised because either we don’t get the health issues right, or we don’t get the environmental issues right, or we’re not meeting our expectations. , those are our customers who pay us a premium for what we produce.”