What are the health aspects of food security?

| August 14, 2013

The main reason for food insecurity in Australia is poverty. Associate Professor in Nutrition and Dietetics, Susan McAlpin, urges Australian governments to make sure that healthy food is affordable for all of us.

What is food security? It has been defined at a global level by the United Nations as existing ‘when all people at all times have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet the dietary needs and food preferences for an active healthy life’. People or households are defined as food insecure if they in the last 12 months have run out of food and do not have enough money to buy more. In Australia 5 to 8 of every 100 adults have been described as food insecure. In some disadvantaged areas the incidence is higher.

The health status of Australians living in rural and remote Australia is worse than those in metropolitan areas. There is increased disadvantage in relation to education, employment opportunities, income, access to goods and services and in some areas access to basic necessities such as clean water and fresh food. So it is not surprising to find that food insecurity is reported at 1.2 times higher than people living in the city.

The major cause of food insecurity is poverty. There are some groups in the community who are more vulnerable to food insecurity such as people on low incomes, people who are unemployed, people with chronic illness, the homeless, people with mental illnesses, Aboriginal and Torres Strait islanders, refugees and those suffering from alcohol and drug abuse. The ability to access food contributes to food insecurity for some frail and elderly people and those living in remote areas, where the cost of food increases.

Families on low income have been shown to have sound nutritional knowledge and adequate cooking skills. The most limiting factor to healthy eating is the lack of money. The consequences of food insecurity for families are that they often have to rely on welfare agencies for food relief; that parents are going without food so their children can eat, and that they purchase cheaper high energy foods and less nutritious foods.

The link between poor nutrition and chronic disease is well known, particularly as it relates to overweight and obesity. Recent studies have identified the relationship between poor diet and food insecurity. The work of Burns (2004) in Melbourne reported the association between poverty, food security and obesity in women, which was found to be 20 to 40% higher in women who were food insecure. People on welfare were less likely to buy and eat healthier food because of the cost of buying them. While this may seem paradoxical it is likely that people who experience food insecurity also rely on cheap high energy and low nutrient foods which provide a relatively cheap source of energy.

The access to affordable food also influences food security. Areas of higher socioeconomic advantage have greater access to stores with fruit and vegetable and they travel shorter distances to these stores. The residents in these areas also spend more on these foods. A study in Melbourne found that take away food outlets were more accessible for disadvantaged population and supermarkets were less accessible. The cost of food in remote parts of Australia increases with the cost of an average food basket in remote areas of the Northern Territory costing an average of 29% more than in Darwin.

Health promotion strategies need to target populations vulnerable to food insecurity. This would include improving income equity and ensuring a cheap supply of health foods. The challenge for Australian governments is to make sure that healthy food, especially food required for a healthy diet, is affordable and available for all Australians, particularly for Australians living in regional, rural and remote Australia.