Hunger. Ongoing, debilitating, and disheartening.
It may not be an issue you’d expect to find in the nation’s capital, but University of Canberra Assistant Professor in Nutrition Tanya Lawlis thinks it’s a reality more people need to be aware of.
“I sometimes think that a lot of us here in Canberra live in a bubble, unaware of the circumstances other people live in,” she said. “We forget that there are people struggling, who often have to make a choice between eating or paying the rent!”
“Food insecurity is a lack of access to sufficient amounts of safe and nutritious food,” she said. “It’s an issue that is coming more to light, but much more needs to be done in terms of understanding the role of poverty and the rolling effects of higher living costs.”
This month, a new report from the ACT Council of Social Service (ACTCOSS) shows that almost 26,000 Canberrans are living below the poverty line, increasing calls for more accessible, affordable housing and higher welfare payments across the country.
Tanya has always had a passionate interest in food security. “Access to food is a basic right, and it is very much a part of being able to live the best life you can,” she said.
In a study published last year, she explored the difficulty single, vulnerable women living in poverty can have in accessing food in the ACT.
“Women are vulnerable to food insecurity because they still fall in a lower income bracket, and if they have children, they are usually the primary caregivers,” she said. “Single women are also fully responsible for themselves, often with noone to rely on.”
As part of her study, she asked women about the challenges they faced accessing food, as well as where they got their food from. Tanya found that many would go to a food charity first, then supplement these supplies with supermarket specials, rewards cards, or reject/overrun stores.
“All the women I spoke to had an income of less than $300 a week,” she said. “They were in a variety of housing options, including women’s refuges. I wanted to talk to women who were juggling their money between bills and food.
"Of the women in the study, 79% had been homeless at some point in their lives.”
Tanya was reminded of the adage of not judging a book by its cover – or in this case, the depth of one’s hunger by one’s coat.
“Many of these women dressed well, took pride in their appearances – and yet were struggling to have adequate access to food,” she said.
“Food pantries were reported as a primary food source, although access was limited due to pantry opening times, low income, poor quality food, and limited healthy fresh food options,” she said.
Which also means that while accessing food is an issue, access to nutritious food can be another matter altogether. “That had an impact on many of them. Limited fresh produce – often with its quality not guaranteed – coupled with the fact that much of the food at charities is calorie-dense, often contributed to women struggling with obesity and dental decay.”
“The stigma of relying on charity was considerable, among many of the women I spoke to,” said Tanya. “They feel bad enough being in this situation, it can take away their dignity and leave them feeling disempowered.”
Despite this, the canny resourcefulness and generally upbeat approach of the women she spoke to left a lingering impression on Tanya. “They were also very supportive of each other, with a palpable sense of community,” she said.
“Poverty can impact anyone, regardless of education level or income,” Tanya said. “Many Australians don’t seem to realise that they could be just two or three pay cheques away from being in the same situation. And understanding – rather than judging – is really crucial to solving the problem.”
Tanya hopes that understanding will form a bedrock on which to build a foundation for a collaborative and cooperative approach within society.
“Ultimately, we need a multi-sector, multi-layered socioeconomic approach to improve the availability, access and utilisation of safe and nutritious food for women, and their children,” she said.
Words by Suzanne Lazaroo