The cost of food

By Amanda Johnson 28/02/2011

Before the devastation that hit Christchurch last week, food prices, and particularly the cost of milk, featured highly in the news, with the Green Party backing a call for an inquiry into dairy pricing and Consumer New Zealand asking for a full investigation by the Commerce Commission as concern over rising food bills grow. We also heard reports from TV3’s Campbell Live of overwhelming demand at a ‘Free Food Store’ in Auckland

The focus has shifted now though with everyone concerned to make sure, as a priority, that the people of Christchurch have access to a plentiful supply of clean water and nourishing food. And it’s certainly extremely encouraging to hear reports that water and food supplies are now getting through.

Everyone wants to do their bit to help, and this weekend Wellingtonians responded in huge numbers to a call for a Great Sunday Bake Off, to provide some delicious home-baked food to the Christchurch community.

Massive quantities of food supplies and fresh home baking were dropped off this morning at the Civic Square and Lambton Quay in Wellington ready to be transported down to Christchurch later today. According to my husband, there was tons of food dropped off, and the city centre this morning was a mass of people walking purposefully with ice cream tubs – some with PILES of ice cream tubs – full of delicious home-baked goodies.

While our absolute focus at the moment as a nation must be supporting Cantabrians and ensuring they have enough fresh clean healthy food and clean water, we mustn’t lose sight in the longer term of the need to make sure the whole of New Zealand can afford a nutritious diet.

Affordability of healthy food is clearly a key issue for those on a low income, concerns are nothing new. Last year Vicki Robinson, a public health dietitian from Wellington, published an analysis of the proportion of the minimum wage and income support benefit entitlements that families need to purchase a healthy diet. Her analysis provided evidence of the inequity and financial difficulties faced by families on low incomes to purchase healthy food adequate to meet daily nutritional needs. The report found that New Zealanders spend on average 16% of their income on food. However, most families on low incomes will need to spend a much higher percentage of income to purchase ‘basic’ healthy foods and many will experience ‘food stress’. Low-income families need to spend between 23-53% of their net income and 42-75% once rent is deducted, to purchase a ‘basic’ healthy diet. An Australian paper suggests that no more than 25% of disposable income should be spent on food and ‘food stress’ is believed to be experienced when more than 30% of income is needed. The report concluded that food insecurity and its consequences of poor nutrition, obesity, and nutrition-related health conditions are evident in families on low incomes. Tackling issues of income adequacy and the accessibility to lower-cost healthy foods needs to be addressed more aggressively as part of the solution to achieve a reversal in these health trends.

There is clearly an issue around the affordability of food for New Zealanders on low incomes and it is high time we looked at ways to address this problem. In March last year, the Supermarket Healthy Options Project (SHOP) study was published, showing that dropping GST from healthy foods would encourage people to buy more healthy foods. The Science Media Centre held a briefing on this topic in July, to look at the potential implications for New Zealand’s public health of exempting healthy food from GST. At the current time, the removal of GST from any food is not looking very likely.

A report published in 2009 on Enhancing Food Security and Physical Activity for Māori, Pacific and Low-income Peoples suggests a whole range of measures for consideration, including subsidising food costs for those on a low income with some sort of Smart Card, increasing the statutory minimum wage, ensuring full benefits entitlements for those on benefits, provision of free or subsidised meals in schools, enhancing nutrition knowledge and cooking skills in the community, promoting community market gardens, improving access to food, and food industry collaboration to improve affordability.

Whether some or all of these suggestions are implemented, what is clear is that action is needed, to enhance food security for the most vulnerable in our society. Our priority as a nation right now needs to be looking after the Christchurch community, but in the longer term we do need to make sure that the country as a whole are food secure.