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Hungry Amidst Abundance

Updated: Apr 1, 2021

Known for our huge range of delicious, fresh foods, Hawke’s Bay is the envy of the country in summer, when the region’s abundant berries, stone fruit, and a multitude of other crops burst into season.

Yet behind this abundance lies a dark truth — a growing number of local children and their families are going hungry. We explore why so many in our community are struggling to put food on the table, the organisations supporting them and those making a difference for future generations.

One in every five New Zealand children doesn’t know where their next meal is coming from, according to national statistics. This means 235,400 children live in homes that cannot afford to buy items most of us would consider essential, such as fresh fruit and vegetables. Māori and Pacific children are disproportionately represented.

‘Food insecurity’ is defined as a limited or uncertain availability of foods that are nutritional, safe and meet cultural needs. Children living this reality not only go hungry, they are also more likely to be overweight or obese, and to have developmental and behavioural difficulties. Their parents are more likely to have poor health, stress and psychological issues, according to a Ministry of Health report.

However, food insecurity is about much more than simply being able to afford the basics. Studies show it is a complex issue incorporating several aspects, such as food environments for children and their families, time, housing stability and cooking facilities available. It is also just one aspect of material hardship.

Here in Hawke’s Bay

Widely known as ‘The Fruit Bowl of NZ’, our region’s rich, plentiful supply of year-round produce, locally raised meat and artisan products is a source of pride. Sadly, when it comes to the nourishment of our population, we sit well below national statistics.

Just one third of Hawke’s Bay adults and children meet the recommended guidelines for daily fruit and vegetable intake – three or more servings of vegetables and two or more of fruit – compared to a national figure of 50%. It’s a trend that’s worsened over the past three years, according to the latest Hawke’s Bay DHB Health Equity Report. The study shows adults living in deprived areas consume less fruit and vegetables than those in more affluent areas.

Added to this is a growing number of school-aged children who don’t eat breakfast at home. The DHB report found for children aged 10-14 years who are living in food-insecure households, one-in-four doesn’t eat breakfast at home, five or more days a week.

Community representatives, school principals, and local organisations involved in supporting those in need tell me an increasing number of people in our region are going hungry. They talk about children going to school without lunch or who stay at home because parents don’t want to send them empty-handed, families unable to provide the basics, and food support organisations meeting a growing need.

There are other heartbreaking stories – a school holding a barbecue each Friday, knowing many of their children wouldn’t eat again until Monday. Parents overjoyed to receive flour, milk and eggs in their food parcel so they could make pancakes as a special treat for their children on Christmas Day. Families visiting food support organisations up to five times a week, so their children don’t go hungry.

There is no hard data on what has happened since Covid, but child poverty across all measures including food insecurity, is expected to have increased. Between April and June 2020, the Salvation Army gave out 780 food parcels from its Napier, Hastings and Flaxmere centres — more than twice the number of parcels in the previous quarter.

While numbers have since dropped back to close to pre-lockdown levels, the organisation is now giving out larger food parcels, so the volume of food being distributed is significantly greater. This extra food is funded by the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) and donors. The Salvation Army has also seen an increase in new clients using their service — making up 70% of clients in the March to June quarter of 2020.

As part of their hardship assistance, MSD provides a special needs grant for food to families and individuals who require urgent support. In April 2020 the number of grants for Hawke’s Bay skyrocketed to 13,294 (compared to 4,817 the previous month). Numbers of grants provided in the region have since returned to usual levels.

Effects of poor nutrition

While food security has decreased, our obesity levels continue to increase. Linked to poor nutrition, childhood obesity remains more common in our most low-deprived communities, with Māori and Pacific children most at risk. Latest B4 school check data shows while childhood obesity at age four was starting to decline nationally, in Napier it is increasing by an alarming 2.5% per year — the second highest rate in the country. Adult obesity rates have also increased across all ethnic groups over the last three years, the DHB Health Equity Report found. More than a third (37.5%) of Hawke’s Bay adults are obese, compared with just under a third (30.5%) nationally.

The Bay’s concerning statistics and lack of nutrition interventions prompted Nourishing Hawke’s Bay, a collaborative project between EIT and the University of Auckland, which aims to improve food environments for children in the region. EIT’s project coordinator Pippa McKelvie-Sebileau says the 18-month study, due to be completed in June 2021, looks at the link between nutrition and overall wellbeing, including children’s mental, physical and oral health. Part of the National Science Challenge, A Better Start, the project is one of 11 challenges funded by MBIE to tackle the biggest issues facing New Zealand.

The project will look at the underlying causes of poor nutrition, at the wider values around food and eating, and engage with parents and children through a series of workshops. “We are hoping to see changes in outcomes for children in the participating schools as well as a flow-on effect for the region over the coming years,” says McKelvie-Sebileau, who is a PhD candidate at the School of Population Health, University of Auckland.

Feeding families, reshaping our future

In addition to long-serving organisations such as the Salvation Army and food banks, Hawke’s Bay has seen a growing number of new initiatives providing food support. One of these is food rescue mission Nourished for Nil, which opened in 2017 and now has centres in Napier, Hastings and Flaxmere. A team of volunteers rescues high quality food that would otherwise end up in landfill and redistributes it to the community.

Fueled by a personal passion to reduce waste and a childhood spent growing up on a farm where she learned the value of food, founder Christina McBeth wanted to step in and make a difference. Since opening, the philosophy of the non-profit hasn’t changed – “We’re about nourishing communities, not the landfill,” she says. In the year to 31 August 2020, the organisation rescued 657 tonnes of food, ranging from produce and pantry staples to frozen foods, drinks and baked goods.

Everyone is welcome to come and fill a bag with food during collection times, there’s no means testing or stigma attached. The team works hard to make it a fun, vibrant atmosphere, says McBeth. She’s seen a slow, noticeable increase in demand over the years, with Covid having a significant impact. In the six weeks before lockdown, they had 13,000 visitors across their centres, which climbed to 19,000 during the six weeks after. Many of those were people who had lost their jobs due to the pandemic, and seasonal work also had an effect.

Increased government funding for food banks and the launch of the healthy school lunches programme are helping reduce food insecurity in areas facing the highest socioeconomic barriers. Currently 8,000 students nationally have lunches provided at school each day, which will grow to 200,000 by the end of Term 3 2021 thanks to increased funding. In Hawke’s Bay 21 schools are already part of the programme, and another 44 signed up.

In Flaxmere, the principal of decile one primary school Te Kura O Kimi Ora, Matt O’Dowda, has made good nutrition and physical exercise a major focus. When he started at the school five years ago, he was shocked by the level of wellbeing among students. “When you walked in the gate, 80% of the kids were obese and that was just horrific …There was just no goodness in anything they were eating and every hour or so they were just topping up on sugar.” In the classroom, students had poor energy levels, mood swings and were struggling to concentrate.

O’Dowda decided it was the school’s job to take a leading role in their students’ health. “We can keep blaming parents, but our community is really hard up. Food is a real issue.” Telling staff they would be a “no excuses school”, they implemented significant changes. Every morning students and staff participate in half an hour of fitness, choosing from a range of activities such as zumba, skipping and crossfit, and all students are provided with breakfast, morning tea and lunch at school.

Breakfast, supplied by KidsCan, is served on kai trolleys to each classroom, so kids can help themselves. In-house cooks prepare nutritious morning teas that are full of fresh produce. Lunches are provided through the Government’s healthy school lunches programme. Students also learn valuable life skills through planting and harvesting food from the school garden, budgeting and preparing meals. Physiology and nutrition are taught throughout the school to give students the knowledge to be able to make good choices around their nutrition, says O’Dowda.

The changes have not only improved their students’ health, they’ve also seen them take massive strides academically. O’Dowda sees the long-term benefits of what they’re doing. “We’re hoping in a generation when their kids go to school, they’ll be thinking ‘no, we’re not putting muesli bars and chips and that crap into their lunch boxes’.”

Community hungry for change

The safety nets might be better, but the system remains an “ambulance at the bottom of the cliff” for those in need, says pastor of Flaxmere Baptist Church, Andrew Reyngoud, who is active in a number of food initiatives.

Through his work he’s seen local demand grow due to a combination of factors. Seasonal work, an increased lack of emergency housing and Covid have all had an impact, putting additional pressure on families, who have less money to spend on food, he says. “People’s choices regarding food is the thing that becomes the issue. They might be able to get something to eat but it might be right at the inexpensive side of the ledger so that means it’s less healthy,” says Pastor Reyngoud.

Covid compounded these issues, increasing the number of people who need help, including those who have never needed to ask for food before. Living situations also play a part, says Pastor Reyngoud. A lot of the people he speaks to would love to grow their own fruit and vegetables but are restricted from doing so because they live in rental homes.

While the Nourishing Hawke’s Bay findings won’t be complete until June 2021, one thing is clear: “In Hawke’s Bay there are massive equity issues” says McKelvie-Sebileau. This socioeconomic inequality within our communities and a focus on exporting so much of our local produce are likely to be two contributors to our troubling statistics, she says.

If demand for food support increases, the safety nets can meet it … for now. Local food initiatives are doing incredible work to help our most vulnerable and there’s huge generosity in our region, but there’s still a long way to go yet before every family can put food on the table every day.

Where to from here?

If we want things to change, we need to focus on building relationships between families and the agencies who support them, says Pastor Reyngoud. It’s about getting to the core of the underlying issues, of which food poverty is just one symptom, so we can truly help. “It’s a case of talking to people, finding out what the barriers are and making it easier for people to make changes.”

It’s great that initiatives like the school lunches programme have put the issue of food on the radar. The next step is building nutritious food into the value system of schools and empowering the next generation, says McKelvie-Sebileau. This builds on feedback they’ve had through community workshops as part of the study. “It’s about the fuel you’re putting into your body, learning how to prepare it but also a lot about caring for the Earth too.”

Reframing education and what we teach our children is vital if we’re going to improve the health of our communities, says O’Dowda. “In the past schools have been hung up on teaching reading, writing and maths, but if you have diabetes and you’re on dialysis when you’re 25, no one cares what reading level you’re on.”

Case study: Feeding a family

Local initiatives have been a lifeline for Janette McAuliffe and her family after she and her partner suddenly lost their jobs due to Covid.

The couple had recently bought their home in Maraenui and were paying off two cars, so they could both travel to and from work, when the country went into lockdown and everything changed. The family of five were plunged into a financial hole that left them with $75 a week after bills, to cover food, petrol, clothes and any other costs. Struggling to provide the basics for their children aged 5, 8 and 13, the couple turned to Nourished for Nil during “a really terrible time”.

“If it wasn’t for them, I don’t know how we would have got through,” she says. It was a difficult step for the couple who have worked since they were teenagers and never asked for help before.

Putting pride aside, McAuliffe visited Nourished for Nil every week to keep her family fed, so they could save their $75 for other necessities. Supplies ranged from bread, cereals and canned goods to produce, and occasionally treats like pizza and biscuits.

“They were so helpful. We always had fruit and there were always vegetables. We got things that we could never buy in the shop like manuka honey because we couldn’t afford it – all the things that you want for your children.”

In October her partner Grant Isaac secured a full-time logging job and the couple are slowly getting back on their feet. McAuliffe has started a course to improve her employment opportunities.

She still visits Nourished for Nil, though less often, to ensure her kids eat well. It’s not something McAuliffe takes for granted, or the impact it’s had on her family. “I’d love to give back once we’re both working again because they got us through the hardest time of our life.”

Original article from Bay Buzz: 20th January 2021

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