Fill a hungry belly or meet nutritional guides? The impossible choices facing low-income families.

People need access to resources in order to feed themselves and their families. Resources include having the time and energy to prepare and cook meals, money for groceries, and suitably-located shops and supermarkets. Where people have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food which meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life, they have what is termed “food security”. Food insecurity, conversely, is where people do not have adequate access to sufficient food to meet their nutritional needs. 

In New Zealand, the most reliable measure we have of food insecurity in our country is from the 2008/2009 Annual Nutrition Survey. This survey asked eight questions regarding the ability of people to afford to eat properly, how often food ran out due to lack of money, eating less, limited food options, social participation, and having to make use of food grants/food banks/rely on friends or family. From this survey we know that in 2008/09, 7.3% of New Zealand households - that is, 113,141 families – severely struggled to afford sufficient food to feed everybody.

This survey has not been undertaken since then. However, there is a strong correlation between food insecurity and the NZDep index [1]. The higher the neighbourhood deprivation level, the more households in that area experience food insecurity, and the more severe the food shortage (even after adjusting for age, sex, and ethnic group). In effect, the most consistent indicator of food insecurity in New Zealand is poverty. Given nationwide trends in income, deprivation levels, and cost of living [2], it is likely that the numbers of New Zealand households experiencing severe food insecurity has increased since 2008/2009.

What we do know, from the most recent (2018) University of Otago Food Cost Survey from is that, in order to adequately meet the basic nutritional costs for a family of 4 (2 adults and 2 school-aged children), a family would need to spend in the region of NZ$225.00 per WEEK. For many families, particularly those on low-incomes, the available cash for food is far less.

What happens, then, when there’s not enough money for food?

Families make ends meet in a number of ways. A common method of survival is to increase uptake of inexpensive highly-processed products. These are readily available, require little in the way of storage or cooking costs, and fill hungry bellies. They are also low in nutritional value and are heavily critiqued by nutritionists for their high sodium and fat content. “Cheap carbs” such as NZ$1 packets of pasta, NZ$1 loaves of bread, and two-minute noodles keep hunger at bay and stretch out more expensive meal items.

Families also utilise their social networks, with wider family members and friends sharing surplus fresh produce and pantry items. Additionally, households may draw on emergency food systems such as foodbanks and food pantries, attend community meals, and forage locally for items. Nevertheless, such practices can be time-consuming, ad-hoc and leave people with minimal choice regarding available foods. They also fail to address the underlying driver of food insecurity, which is the deliberate under-resourcing of families.

When there isn’t enough money to afford to feed everyone, keeping hungry bellies full becomes more important than meeting impossible-to-achieve nutritional guidelines. The stress and worry associated with food insecurity makes providing food for the family a difficult, distressing occurrence, with parents reporting a sense of stigma and shame at being unable to provide enough food for their families.

Together, these have long-term implications for the wider physical health and mental well-being of children and adults alike. Improving well-being requires adequately resourcing families.

[1]  The NZDep is an area-based measure of socioeconomic deprivation in New Zealand. See: for more information.

[2] As per Bryan Perry’s report “The Material Wellbeing of New Zealand Households: Trends and Relativities Using Non-Income Measures, with International Comparisons” Wellington: MSD.

This blog post draws on the following academic article: Graham, R., Hodgetts, D., Stolte, O., & Chamberlain, K. (2018). Hiding in plain sight: Experiences of food insecurity and rationing in New Zealand. Food, Culture, and Society, 21(3), 384-401. doi:10.1080/15528014.2018.1451043

Dr Rebekah Graham is a researcher whose doctorate focused on families' lived experiences of food insecurity within the context of poverty. She lives in Hamilton with her husband, four children, and a very large orange cat.