The truth about poverty
Poverty is only a part of the school lunch problem by David Penberthy is a good read, which throws together a lot of issues around nutrition, education, consumerism, income and welfare. However, its conclusions aren’t supported by the research it refers to - Not enough to eat, our national study into food insecurity among people seeking Emergency Relief.
Most of the people we spoke to – especially parents – know what good food is and how to cook it. For many of them it’s when a big bill comes in or the rent gets jacked up, or the car needs repairing, that food becomes their only discretionary item, and it runs out.
Without a doubt lack of income is the key problem these people face. And it’s very hard to get past this to tackle the next set of problems and issues affecting their health, wellbeing or employment.
It’s also worth pointing out that food insecurity is more severe for people who don’t have a working fridge or stove, who are a long way from shops, or who don’t have transport. Social and family obligations can also put an inordinate strain on parents feeding their families, and that doesn’t mean they are indolent or selfish.
And while suggesting that not having enough to eat is the consequence of people choosing to spend up on a carton of cigarettes is an easy line, research we commissioned from NATSEM shows that people on the lowest incomes spend more on essentials such as food and rent, and less on alcohol, cigarettes and other discretionary items than the rest of the population.
Mind you, for those addicted to cigarettes, it is expensive. The NSW Cancer Council working with Anglicare Sydney has found that people living on the lowest incomes want to break that addiction at least as much as the well to do. But tobacco is insidious, and to dismiss the problem in such a snide manner (“parents who would sooner stock up on a carton of Longbeach Ultra Milds than a box of cornflakes”) suggests contempt rather than insight into people’s circumstances.
I enjoyed reading Mr Penberthy’s prescription for a healthy lunch for a poor kid: a green apple (why green exactly?) and a vegemite sandwich (white bread from the servo) along with a refreshing drink from the bubbler. Leaving aside the real price of green apples and sandwiches for a week (truly more than $5), we can also be sure it’s not what everyone else will be eating. There are a few complexities about being poor in a rich country that could bear a bit of unpacking.
In Mr Penberthy’s stream of consciousness there was also quite a discussion of Australia’s generally unhealthy habits, and the growing distance most people in our consumer world are from the source of the food they eat: not recognizing potatoes in their natural form, for example. Those are good points, although the implication that this somehow makes people without enough to eat complicit in their food insecurity, and less deserving, conveniently steers us away from any broader perspective on food policy at a national or community level. And sure, some people don’t know much about cooking and suffer accordingly, but in our sample that was mostly single men.
I commend our report to those readers of the Punch who would like to go a bit deeper. One of the essays talks with mothers doing it tough who take food in their families very seriously. Among their many challenges they highlight is the added task of getting their children to eat what they can provide, in the face of a fairly universal view that everyone picks and chooses what they want to eat these days. Another essay looks precisely at the links between food production, community strength and wellbeing, while the people surveyed themselves talk about never inviting friends home nor sending kids to events because of not having a biscuit or being able to take a plate.
While it is obviously easy to simply blame the poor for choosing to not eat well, our research pointed to income, access to good food and living conditions as the drivers. The underlying purpose of income support and welfare is to give everyone a chance to participate in (and make a contribution) to our society, but not having enough to eat robs you of that chance. And a part of the problem is that the consumer economics of our affluent country is steering us all away from cheap and healthy food, which just adds to this exclusion.
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