In the last financial year Foodbank Australia has experienced an 11% increase in community groups seeking food assistance. In the lead-up to the National Emergency Relief Summit, we had the chance to speak to Gerry Andersen, CEO at Foodbank NSW about the reasons behind the rising demand, what families are most affected and the biggest challenges in providing effective support.
What factors do you think are responsible for the rise in demand for food assistance?
Gerry Andersen: I think that the community in general and the low-income households in particular are struggling with the rising costs of basic goods and services such as electricity, housing and food. In NSW alone the need for food relief has increased by 8 percent from 2011/12 to 2012/13. We have already seen a drastic increase in demand for food assistance from the welfare agencies in the first six months of this financial year.
The need for food assistance is related to a number of interdependent issues. In a lot of cases people have mortgages and families to support. They may have traditionally had both parents at work, but one of them may have been made redundant which puts additional pressure on them. According to our estimates, some 13% of the Australian population need some form of food relief from us over the year. That’s about 2.2 million people and half of those are children. More than 1 million kids need our help and more of half of those kids go to school without breakfast every morning or go to bed without dinner every night.
How do you research these figures?
Gerry Andersen: Foodbank Australia runs a major statistically viable annual report, gathering data across the nation and each state. The findings of the End Hunger Report are put together by reviewing over 1000 survey responses. The findings are also underpinned by further surveys which we conduct with our community service provider partners such as Anglicare and the Salvation Army.
In emergency situations food unfortunately becomes a discretionary expense. Our survey shows that the main people who need food relief are no longer the unemployed and the single parent families. In recent years we have seen a shift towards the low-income families that are in need for food assistance. They still have a job and are still trying to look after their family, but the pressure on their ability to feed the family is increasing, because they still have to pay electricity, they still have to pay their mortgage if they are fortunate enough to have mortgage.
What role does Foodbank play in helping people get back on their feet?
Gerry Andersen: We are not working frontline, but operate more like the pantry to the welfare sector. In NSW we are supporting over 500 welfare agencies and supply them with food packages. Once people have food and therefore their basic needs covered, it allows the welfare agencies to address other issues. If people are just hungry, it is very hard to deal with some of the other problems they may be struggling with such as mental health or finance. The need for food is very often the factor that brings people to the welfare agencies, which would have otherwise not been able to reach them. One of the big issues that we see through our surveys is that mums and dads are going without food to make sure their kids have enough. And it is very hard to focus on anything else if you are just hungry all the time.
According to studies by Professor Peter Saunders from the UNSW Social Policy Research Centre, 14% of Australians are unable to raise $2000 within a week in a case of emergency. A tenth of Australians is unable to afford home contents insurance. How do these trends impact on national food security?
Gerry Andersen: We have definitely witnessed some of that with the recent bush fires in the Blue Mountains. Quite a lot of people just did not have insurance for their property because they could not afford it. And we are seeing this everywhere. Just per coincidence a lot of people in those low-income families also tend to be the families who might have more kids than other family groups. And while kids certainly do provide great joy, they can also put a lot of financial hardship on some. Their need for food is also a lot higher in those situations.
Gerry Andersen: Our biggest challenge is to have a warehouse that is able to handle the increasing volume of supplies. Hopefully we will have some positive announcements to make in this regard by the end of February.
You will be speaking at the inaugural National Emergency Relief conference. What discussions would you like to have with other speakers and conference attendees at the event?
Gerry Andersen: I would like to bring the message across that when emergency relief is needed we are the organisation that welfare agencies can turn to. One of the biggest issues when it comes to food donations is that people would like to make a contribution and often this is not very well organised. People give things that are not necessary or you are getting too much stuff that is already covered. We are much better equipped to coordinate the industry. For example, during the bush fires in the Blue Mountains we had food parcels ready to go the next day. We know exactly what is needed in these sorts of situations and have the capacity to coordinate donations efficiently. While it is nice if people and organisations would like to make donations just out of the goodness of their heart, it is better and ultimately more effective to be coordinated.