NZ produces enough food to feed 40 million people, yet there are Kiwis without enough on their plate – and the extended lockdown isn’t helping

On the streets of Vietnam, apples are a premium fruit. In a land where tropical fare such as pineapples and mangos are a dime a dozen, it’s a temperate fruit like an apple that is exotic and special.

And New Zealand is the brand most commonly used to sling this produce – along with other fruits that prefer colder climes, such as cherries and blueberries.

The world eats from the New Zealand larder. The Ministry for Foreign Affairs and Trade reported between 70 and 95 percent of output from the meat, dairy, fisheries, wine, forestry and some horticulture sectors is sent straight overseas.

New Zealand produces enough food to feed 40 million people, yet there are Kiwis without enough on their plate – and the extended lockdown hasn’t done anything to help that.

Figures released this week by the New Zealand Food Network (NZFN) shows the network of food distributing social enterprises show the level of need for food security has soared since the beginning of the pandemic, and taken another jump since the beginning of the Delta outbreak in August.

The NZFN distributed 3051.8 tonnes of food to communities in need via food hubs between August and October of this year. This marked a 159.7 percent increase on demand over winter of this year, and a 504 percent increase on this time last year.

“The closure of businesses has resulted in thousands of New Zealanders facing reduced working hours or income and on occasion, redundancy – some have had no choice but to turn to external food support for the first time to keep food on the table,” said NZFN CEO Gavin Findlay.

“Despite loosening of restrictions in Auckland and around the country, unfortunately we’re still seeing a real need in our communities. With Christmas just around the corner, this holiday season is going to be especially tough for many Kiwis.”

NZFN CEO Gavin Findlay says the past few months have demonstrated the importance of food businesses and frontline community groups working together. Photo: Supplied

Many of the organisations serviced by the NZFN have also reported significant spikes in demand.

The Kai Collective Project is a social enterprise focused on providing food support to vulnerable communities in East Auckland, and sometimes more widely.

Before this lockdown, they were giving food to 200 households a week. Now it’s more like 700. During September, the team of mostly unpaid volunteers gave out 2679 food parcels to Aucklanders in need – a 235 percent increase on their normal operation.

Philippa Holmes, co-founder of Kai Collective, said food support like this was an immediate and urgent response, but it didn’t necessarily fix the deeper issues behind it, namely poverty.

“Food insecurity is a symptom of poverty, and poverty is rampant in this country right now,” she said. “The pandemic has only exacerbated that for many families.”

On top of that, the groups most vulnerable to food insecurity are also the people most negatively affected by the pandemic.

“Women, Māori and Pasifika were the most vulnerable to the inequity of the food system prior to the pandemic – that’s only been exacerbated,” Holmes said. “Then we’ve got a new group of people who’ve become food insecure for the first time.”

Food security is a bellwether for some of New Zealand’s embedded inequalities – perhaps because not having enough money for the week’s groceries is due to other needs being chased up by third parties.

If a family is late on the rent or power bill, there will be phone calls or visits. If somebody needs vital medication, it’s non-negotiable. But a family might cope with a less nutritious meal or an emptier stomach and it could be that nobody from the outside even notices.

“We’ve had instances where people are only getting $200 in their bank account. That’s meant to hold them for everything,” Holmes said. “They’ll try and pay all the bills to keep their roof over their head, because at least then they have the option of seeking food support. They can’t go out and get rent relief in the same way.”

She said while hunger obviously sat very urgently as an intrinsic need, people were often driven by outside pressures to take care of other things first.

“If you don’t meet certain other obligations, there are direct ramifications that are external.”

But this means food support is just a temporary fix, holding things together in the meantime.

Holmes says New Zealand’s food support framework was not fit for purpose even before the pandemic, and obviously things haven’t improved.

“It’s this intangible walk in the dark,” she said.

Other food hubs who work with the NZFN have seen similar skyrocketing demand.

South Auckland Christian Foodbank reported a 342 percent increase during the first four weeks of lockdown, compared to the previous month.

Food service BBM Motivation pulled up the roots of its food bank and shifted into bigger premises in order to meet the increased demand.

“Pre-lockdown we were doing 300 to 500 free hot meals a day through our community kitchen,” said Dave Letele, founder of the food bank. “In terms of entire food parcels we were doing up to 50 parcels a week. These numbers have multiplied exponentially this current lockdown, and we’re now doing 560 food parcels weekly.”

And although the brunt of the lockdown has been felt in Auckland, other parts of the country also reported an increased demand for food support.

Food hub SuperGrans Tairāwhiti had a 543 percent increase on demand for their services this September compared to the same time the year before.

Before the pandemic, the Ministry of Health published figures showing an estimated 174,000 children, or 19 percent of the population under the age of 15, lived in food-insecure houses, meaning they lacked access to sufficient affordable nutritious food.

The exact figures on the same situation for 2021 have not been published, but the experience of those offering food support over the past few months suggests that number could be on a troubling rise.

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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