Despite Australia being the 9th most food secure country in the world, and benefiting from almost two decades of economic growth, over 1.2 million people living in Australia are “food insecure”. A figure that was calculated by asking people if they had run out of food at least once during last year and/or had not been able to afford to buy more. While this indicates that the scale of food insecurity in Australia is shocking, limitations of the survey imply that these figures underestimate just how big the problem really is.
Hunger is a major, and often hidden, social problem in Australia. Usually the most vulnerable groups of society are under-represented in national surveys e.g. higher levels of food insecurity have been identified in Asylum Seekers (71%),Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people (24%), disadvantaged urban households (25%) and people who are unemployed (23%). Charities are also reporting a staggering rise in the number of working families and single parents who are seeking food relief.
Image supplied from the Annual Foodbank Hunger Report.
Food banks are becoming the main way in which we tackle food insecurity. Yet, while many people rely on food aid provisions from food banks, they are increasingly being criticised for not addressing the bigger issues. Some, like Dr. Elaine Power, go as far as to say that if we are truly going to end hunger, food banks should be closed altogether.
So what’s wrong with the Food Bank model? Well firstly, food banks were originally designed to provide “temporary” food provisions to those in need. The first food bank in Australia opened in 1992. Twenty-four years later and the demand for food aid is continuing to rise, as are the number of food banks in Australia. While food banks were originally put in place to provide emergency food aid to those in need, they are now becoming a national, and even worldwide, institution. The development of Foodbank Australia, partnerships with corporate food companies and the responsibility food banks now have in providing social assistance, all suggest that this is a growing phenomenon. In many cases, food banks have even become one of the main providers of social assistance, filling the gaps left by social welfare programs.
“Food banks have not, and will not, eradicate food insecurity.”
Food bank usage is also a poor indicator of food insecurity. There is increasing concern that those who use food banks represent only a small proportion of the population who are food insecure. Canada has routinely monitored household food insecurity levels since 2005. While 13% of the Canadian population are classified as being food insecure, only 20-30% of these individuals reported visiting a food bank for help. This would mean that the rising need for food aid from a small amount of the population represents a larger, growing food insecurity crisis. It would also suggest that food banks are incapable of ending hunger, simply because a lot of the people who are hungry simply don’t use them.
Food banks are also at a disadvantage when it comes to providing food aid to the hungry, simply because they can only supply what is donated. As well as that, donated food is often lacking in both nutritional value and volume. A lot of this food comes from corporations that may have motivations other than feeding the hungry. Food banks are great for these large companies because they can easily offload any edible food that they cannot sell and then advertise themselves as being a caring business. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it just means that these companies have a vested interest when it comes to making food donations.
The underlying social issues have to be addressed if the situation is ever going to improve.
While food banks work tirelessly to deliver food to the people that need it most, the emotional impact of accessing food provisions by going to a food bank is often overlooked. Equal access to food is a basic human right and food banks do not provide this. There is still a lot of stigma attached with going to a food bank. Perhaps this explains why not all people who struggle to put food on the table use them. Canada has tried to tackle this issue with a program called Food for Friends. Rather than going straight to a food bank, individuals are given a plastic card, basically like a debit card, which is topped up with donated money. The card can then be used in any participating stores, giving these individuals freedom of choice when it comes to buying their groceries.
In recent years many emergency food aid organisations have begun to move beyond the traditional food bank model. Some organisations have started to offer activities such as community gardening, community kitchens, and urban fruit picking programs. Skill-building programs like budgeting or employment services, and social programs like childcare or emergency shelters are also offered. The demand for services other than food provisions reflects the need for sustainable support systems that tackle the underlying problems associated with food insecurity.
Food banks cannot be expected to solve larger social issues that are at the root of food insecurity. They may provide valuable temporary relief to individuals but they do not tackle complex social issues like affordable housing, employment, and access to social assistance. At best they are a band-aid solution for food insecurity. The underlying social issues have to be addressed if the situation is ever going to improve.
Food banks were designed to be a temporary solution but are fast becoming a necessity for some of societies most vulnerable citizens. Data over the last few decades has shown that food banks are not sustainable and will not eradicate food insecurity. No one believes that people should be left hungry and struggling to put food on the table. However, food banks are not the end solution for tackling poverty. Ending food insecurity won’t be an easy fix and I don’t know what the solution is but something needs to change. Perhaps the first thing we need to do is to remove the obstacle that food banks have become.