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Dispelling the myths of food poverty

The New Testament can be spot-on. As usual, the Budget handed out considerable amounts to those that hath at least a moderate amount already, and only a few scraps to those that hath hardly anything.

Post-Budget, I've been thinking about poverty and food. There's a mountain of research to show that when it's incredibly hard to make ends meet, it's food that takes the hit, because it's the only flexible expense. That's why some kids go to school without lunches, or maybe even without breakfast.

But whenever the food of the poor is discussed in the media, the scornful comments flood in, trying to demonise and place blame on struggling parents. You often see comments such as, "It's so easy to stock up on specials/cook up a pot of soup/make cheap school lunches/come up with simple healthy meals," and: "When we had very little money, we managed perfectly well - why can't they?"

If I suddenly found myself on a very strict food budget - the kind where you spend your whole time in the supermarket worrying about whether you'll be able to pay for what you put in the trolley - I would probably be able to manage pretty well too. But the ability to do that depends on a whole range of factors, most of which have very little to do with my own worthiness or work ethic.

One: Basic income security. Ever since my first marriage there's been enough coming in to cover the bills, the food, and emergencies. Apart from a few times very early on, I haven't had to worry about whether I'd have enough to cover the total at the checkout. And I've always been able to pay the bills for the power and gas I need to cook. Things are so different now. Thousands of families with at least one parent in paid work don't earn enough to meet their basic needs, or never know what they'll earn from one week to the next. And benefits are no longer designed to keep you out of poverty - they keep you in it.

Two: Good housing with a well-equipped, workable kitchen. Our first son was seven and had a little brother by the time we managed to buy a house. But before that we had little trouble finding a series of Auckland flats to rent that were secure, dry, quiet, affordable and had workable kitchens. And we didn't have to share them with other people. I've never once had to cope with damp, freezing, mouldy or overcrowded homes with shockingly bad kitchens - let alone live in a garage or a car, with no kitchen at all. And I've never been unable to afford basic equipment like a big soup pot.

Three: Cheap fresh food. When we got back from working in Britain in 1976, I was so thrilled to be able to buy such good food for so little every week. Over the last thirty years the enormous increase in the real price of fresh food in New Zealand has been phenomenal. We're one of the few countries that imposes GST on it all. When I have overseas visitors, they're shocked by how much fresh food costs here - especially considering how much of it we produce. And if you buy something which is supposed to be fresh but very quickly goes off, it's a total loss. So you'll stick to heavily processed but utterly reliable food instead. Junk food is so much cheaper - if I were chronically poor, I'd be buying it too.

Four: Experience and education. As I explained in The Colour of Food, when I married at the age of 19 and promptly had a baby, I could barely cook at all. Now, I know a hundred ways to make a cheap, filling, reasonably healthy meal, but back then I didn't have a clue. Luckily I'd grown up with a mother who was a good cook, and so was my mother-in-law. And new recipes for exotic but cheap one-dish creations like spaghetti bolognese were just starting to appear in magazines I could afford to buy, so I could learn quickly. This is so far from the case for many parents nowadays.

Five: Food access. For me, shops selling a good range of food have always been within fairly easy reach, even when we didn’t have a car. That's just not the case for hundreds of people now. You try providing bargain-price healthy meals week after week when it takes a huge effort just to get to the nearest supermarket. Easy to reach food shops in poorer and rural areas charge more and may not stock much in the way of decent food.

Six: A good store of extras. What makes cheap, basic healthy food tasty is being able to add all the little extras - spices, lemon juice, vinegar, stock. I have all these in abundance, all the time. If you're on a tight food budget, you can't afford them.

Seven: A buffer fund. If something essential breaks down - the fridge, the stove, the car - I can afford to put it right without having to go begging to Work and Income or an invisible landlord. If I see good specials - often multibuys - I can afford to stock up, and I've got the room to store them safely and securely. When you're juggling your money so precariously that any extra spending one week will mean there's nothing left the week after, this is impossible. 

I don't think there can be anything much more soul-destroying than being responsible for providing your family with food every day, in circumstances that make doing that a constant struggle. So next time you read yet another shocking story in the media about families going without decent healthy food, please pause and have a good think about their reality, which may be very different from yours. Then find out how you can support moves to change it for good.