National Food Plan: most Australians are food secure, but can we do more?

Does the government’s recently released National Food Plan provide for the needs of food insecure and marginalised Australians? AAP/Alan Porritt

The National Food Plan, launched on May 25, spelt out the government’s intentions for Australia’s food industry. Several advocacy groups and academics have highlighted the flawed assumptions in the plan, the business as usual approach and the potential negative health impacts of exporting Australia’s western diet to our neighbors.

These broader issues deserve attention. But the failure of the plan to fully recognise and respond to the needs of marginalised and food insecure Australians should also be highlighted.

According to food charity organisation FoodBank, two million Australians use food relief each year. That’s approximately 8% of Australia’s population unable to satisfy one of the most fundamental human needs on their own terms. Some Australians may be physically unable to prepare food, are socially isolated or may experience unexpected crises.

It is important that there exists a food safety net for these situations, and that these services should be nutritious and operated to ensure their clients’ dignity. But this charitable food system was not set up to chronically support people, and yet community organisations report that this is what regularly occurs.

These chronic users are the people that the food and social support systems have failed. Many are receiving social security benefits and would need to spend 40% of their income on food if they want to eat a healthy diet (most people spend 17%).

These Australians are marginalised, and may live in cities or in regional or remote communities. They could be Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people, they could be new migrants, low-income families, pensioners, university students or people who are homeless. As many consumers have only two supermarket choices for where to purchase food, once these options are exhausted, there are not enough low-cost alternative buffers before charity must be used.

These Australians are emotionally and physically scarred from budgeting for food, asking charities for help, eating poor food and skipping meals altogether. They are more likely to be at risk of diet related disease and poor mental health. For their children there are profound developmental consequences of inadequate access to nutritious and affordable food. Food insecurity is both a by-product of and a precursor to poor health and social exclusion.

Australia is likely to see more food insecurity if and when certain phenomena occur, and it is unlikely that our charitable emergency sector will be able to deal with the fall out. If economic trends in America, Canada and Europe happen here; if climate change continues to impact food production and food prices; or if Australia continues to not progress in reducing poverty prevalence and unfairly distributing our common wealth, we are likely to see more food insecurity.

The tenth goal articulated in the National Food Plan is:

Australia will have built on its high level of food security by continuing to improve access to safe and nutritious food for those living in remote communities or struggling with disadvantage.

In order to achieve this, funding for school kitchen gardens and national strategies for nutrition and consumer information will occur. Complementary agendas alongside the plan, like the Agreement on Preventative Health, food security in remote communities and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Chronic Disease Fund are also in progress. This reflects a promising understanding of the various determinants and multi-pronged solutions required for domestic food security.

However, it is feared that the unnumbered “struggling with disadvantage” are still misunderstood by the federal government. The recent rejection to increase social security benefits, the small amount of community funding for projects and the absence of community representatives in the National Food Plan working group highlight several areas where not enough is being done at the federal level.

How could goal number ten be achieved? The plan could have expanded on some of the promising policies and tools being used in local and state government. The emergency food system should have been strengthened. Preventative and innovative community food projects and social enterprises should have been adequately funded. The plan could have named and numbered food insecure Australians and articulated targets for reduced prevalence and severity.

These are just some of the ways to ensure that Australia is a place where the basic human right to food is guaranteed. Food insecurity at home has a sad and unhealthy impact within our community, and more should be done about this.