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Study finds food insecurity in Australia worse than reported

The true extent of ‘hidden hunger’ in Australia may be higher than previously thought, suggests new research by Edith Cowan University (ECU).

Whereas the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) claim only four per cent of Australians are suffering, ECU’s nationwide survey of 2334 Australians has found 36 per cent of people experience low or very low food security at some time.

This ranges from having no food, to dietary behaviours that include skipping meals, cutting the size of meals and being forced to buy cheaper foods that are less nutritious.

“Our current national surveys tend to measure food deprivation – a household running out of food and not being able to purchase more,” said lead researcher Lucy Butcher from ECU’s School of Medical and Health Sciences.

“But it doesn’t capture people who need to cut corners on food or are worried about where their next meal is coming from.

“Measuring food deprivation only encompasses the severest form of food insecurity, and has led to a substantial underreporting of the problem.”

To get a better sense of the issue, researchers modified the U.S. Household Food Security Survey Module, which captures more nuanced data.

Challenging stereotypes

Study findings debunk a number of common stereotypes, including the cashed-up tradie, deprived senior citizens and the rich being immune to hunger.

While seniors are often depicted as doing without, only 8.4 per cent of those between 65 and 84 reported very low food security.

In contrast, one-fifth of 25-34 and 34-44 year-olds had very low food security (20.2 and 20.6 per cent respectively).

“Home ownership, government assistance and children leaving home may be explanations for a reduction of food insecurity in the over-65 group,” Ms Butcher said.

The occupation with the highest level of food insecurity was labourers, with 25.5 per cent experiencing very low and 24.1 per cent low food security.

This was followed by technicians and trades workers, with 21.6 per cent experiencing very low and 24.7 low food security.

Income doesn’t prevent hunger

In terms of salary, predictably, those with an income below $18,000 were the most vulnerable, however a surprising 8.6 per cent of those earning $180,000 or more had very low food security.

“Our findings show that food insecurity is not exclusive to low-income households,” Ms Butcher said.

“Chronic health conditions, job losses or problems with gambling, drugs or alcohol can create financial instability and put a strain on food budgets regardless of household input.

“We also know that many middle income earners are feeling extreme mortgage stress in the current economy, which puts pressure on credit cards and spending decisions on basic essentials such as food.”

In addition, the study found factors such as marital status, education level and number of people in the household affected food security. No significant difference was found in gender or being a first, second or third-generation migrant.

The study ‘Utilising a multi-item questionnaire to assess household food security in Australia’ by Lucy Butcher, Therese O’Sullivan, Maria Ryan, Johnny Lo and Amanda Devine is published in Health Promotion Journal of Australia.