We’ve been overwhelmed by the generosity of the Melbourne community who have come forward with food and supplies during this bitterly cold winter. As a result we’ve been able to meet the growing needs of clients who are living on our streets, who are cold, hungry and unwell.
Around eighty per cent of the clients attending the Youth Projects primary health clinic frequently go hungry, unable to access the basic requirement of three meals a day. In both cities and in the suburbs, food security has emerged as an increasing indicator of poverty.
And a disturbing finding from a new study by the City of Melbourne shows that the hunger problem also now extends to a broader group of people including those who are housed, in both public housing and in the private rental market such as students and the elderly. In fact, up to 7,500 people are facing food shortage in a food rich city and in a country of abundance.
But it is people experiencing homelessness who have the worst diets and health of anyone in our community, suffering much higher rates chronic disease than the rest of the public.
Dependency on food vouchers, soup vans, food scraps and hand outs eventually takes its toll on health. Many report that the recycled, donated food hand outs offer little variety and often comprise meat pies and stale pastries Food security exists when people have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy lifestyle. Lack of any choice and control in what you eat is hard to fathom for most of us who make food choices daily.
Food insecurity in Australia is likely to be over five per cent of the general population, and much higher among groups at risk such as those in remote areas, indigenous people, homeless people, and those on low or insecure incomes.
These vulnerable groups are more likely to consume greater amounts of ‘energy dense' foods and insufficient servings of essential vegetables and grains. High fat meals such as fast-food are often perceived as being more affordable, more filling and more easily available in disadvantaged areas.
When people have little money, food choices are the first to feel the pinch. This is because struggling individuals and families know they can't avoid paying rent or power bills. For people living on the streets, their options are even more limited.
Poor diet places increased costs on our health budget downstream and is better dealt with early. New innovative solutions are needed to empower low income households and people who are homeless to achieve good health for their long term benefit.
At Youth Projects our sessions teaching life skills such as cooking, budgeting, shopping and food hygiene have been popular. We hope to scale up these programs to empower and break long term dependency on the issue of food and nutrition. Combined with mental health counselling, access to training and skills. we’re supporting the transition to a healthier, more stable lifestyle.
But for now, community gardens and cooking programs alone won't be enough due to the scale of the hunger problem. Poverty will remain the root cause due to rising costs of living especially rent, lack of jobs and the failure of government benefits to keep pace. Fortunately, our work in job skills and placement also serve to help people move from poverty to a new and better life.