Katharine Cresswell Riol
When you think of hunger, chances are you do not summon up an image of a clothed, housed and employed individual. Yet in New Zealand there are accounts of children arriving for their morning classes without having eaten breakfast at home, and people working two jobs but still having to queue for food handouts. The food insecure within this country are not necessarily destitute individuals. They are also those on benefits, the under- or hidden employed, and the underpaid or working poor. In a country that is prosperous, free of conflict and agriculturally self-sustaining, a high level of food security is assumed, but that does not mean that the small pockets of those who remain food insecure should be any less disregarded, especially when the reason behind their insecurity is systemic.
New Zealand presents a paradox of plenty: it exports over 95% of its agricultural production; its supermarkets – and the public – throw out over 120,000 tonnes of food per year. The issue is therefore not one of availability, but accessibility. In a country in which subsistence agriculture is practically non-existent, the main reason people are hungry is because they lack capital to purchase food. But hunger is not simply about the absence of food: when someone is hungry they do not just lack food, they lack power. Hunger reflects structural issues, like institutional discrimination and marginalisation on the basis of class, race, gender and age.
Yet solutions are usually technical (like producing more food) or charitable (like food banks). In other words, hunger has been depoliticised. The primary focus of the debate has shifted, from democratic and social values to supposedly non-negotiable scientific ‘facts’. And how the debate is presented has also been transformed, allowing governments to defend their decision not to involve themselves.
In the case of New Zealand, NGOs have not only allowed the government to relieve itself of responsibility but since the 1990s have taken up the gauntlet themselves in the form of food banks. Hunger has thereby been framed as an issue to be addressed by charity as opposed to one that requires political debate. It is viewed as a private problem, thereby justifying the retraction of public funding and government intervention. Rooting the solutions of hunger within charity as opposed to justice is disempowering and, far from advocating equality, it preserves inequalities. This approach prevents people from understanding food as a basic human right, an approach that would obligate a government to ensure that people have dignified access to food – whether financially or through growing it themselves. In other words, the opposite of charity.
Fundamentally, hunger is an issue of social justice. It is important to place it within the framework of rising indigence and inequality, issues that have affected, and have been affected by, New Zealand’s economic and social policies over the past quarter of a century. Hunger needs to be reframed as political, as an issue of power imbalances created by inequality: one only has to consider who it is who is hungry and who is not. Political solutions are needed. But, for such an approach, the issues must be discussed and debated within the public sphere and, most importantly, must include those who are food insecure.
Within New Zealand, as in many other developed countries, the voices of the food insecure have been silenced. When someone drops a can into a donation basket on their way out of a supermarket, or donates online, the person to whom this donation is going is invisible. Pervasive cultural ideas around personal responsibility lead to judgement: blaming the poor for their poverty, putting it down to bad choices and behavioural issues. This shuts down further debate. A society that views food as a commodity allows social, cultural and personal values to be lost.
The food insecure suffer communicative disenfranchisement. It is important to focus on the lived experiences of food bank users. Bringing their voices to the forefront enables those who may have felt they lacked the power to see their role within this important debate, to visualise their part in the solutions – to understand themselves as agents of their own emancipation. Their perspectives and knowledge are vital to improving efforts to address food insecurity. Ultimately, for solutions to be effective, they must include those affected.
Originally from England, Katharine Cresswell Riol is currently undertaking her doctoral research within the Centre for Sustainability at the University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand. She is using a participatory action research approach with which she aims to bring the voices of those who are food insecure within Dunedin to the forefront.
Katharine’s book, The Right to Food Guidelines, Democracy and Citizen Participation, was published by Routledge in 2017.