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Affluence does not make us immune to the global food crisis

Thursday May 8 2008

Robert Tickner, CEO, Australian Red Cross

Discussion about a world food crisis has escalated dramatically in recent weeks, and with good reason. Food-related riots have been reported across the globe, in Africa, the Middle East, South America and now in one of Australia's nearest neighbours, Indonesia.

The Australian Government made a point of referring to food security at the recent 2020 Summit, and the Prime Minister upon his return from overseas visits made mention of an 'unfolding food crisis around the world'.

The United Nations World Food Program recently described 'a perfect storm for the world's hungry', caused by low food stocks and high food and oil prices.

Higher oil prices have increased the production and distribution costs of food, while sharp consumption growth in Asia, an increasing emphasis on the cultivation of crops for biofuel, and further pressure on traditional crops from extreme weather all mean the global food supply is under pressure, and prices are rising accordingly.

These are global concerns that have global ramifications. The most visible of these global factors affecting Australia is the ongoing challenge of drought in some of our most productive 'food basket' farming regions.

Some suggest that Australia is well insulated against hunger ... that our relative wealth and natural resources protect us from food availability or accessibility issues.

Unfortunately for many of Australia's most vulnerable people, this is patently inaccurate.

If food security is defined as regular access to nutritious, affordable and culturally appropriate food for individuals and communities, then there are disadvantaged people in communities in Australia who are already in crisis. As we discuss global rice prices, and debate the merits of using edible corn crops for biofuel, there are members of our own communities who can't afford to eat.

In Australia, an estimated five to eight per cent of the population endure times when they have no food and no money to purchase food. In areas of high disadvantage, this figure is significantly higher, and it is children who are often most vulnerable.

At its worst, this lack of access to food can lead to malnutrition. A recent Health Department assessment in the Northern Territory revealed as many as one in nine Indigenous children suffers from malnutrition.

Red Cross works with schools and communities to set up and run Good Start Breakfast Clubs across the country, serving nutritious breakfasts to children who might otherwise go without, and delivering nutrition education programs to children, parents and the wider community. We now have more than 220 of these clubs, serving upwards of 650,000 meals annually.

We regularly receive reports of the improvements in children's lives as a result: vastly better health, attendance, behaviour, and increased socialisation between students.

But the most powerful feedback for me personally was from a South Australian teacher who reported that before the school had a breakfast club, one child would scavenge through rubbish bins in the yards for scraps, which she would collect and then eat.

This highlights the true urgency of the current situation. This isn't about a projected increase in the cost of a loaf of bread. This isn't about a family cutting out takeaway from their budget. This is about a primary school child who is unable to access enough food in Australia, today.

As always, the most vulnerable groups in society are hit hardest. Young people, the socially disadvantaged, the geographically isolated, the aged and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

This is not an issue to be solved with a simple, one-off solution. It is a complex problem that requires multi-faceted approaches. It is not enough to simply hand out food to people in need, although we must continue this while it is so urgently needed. We must also address the issues of education, access to nutritious, culturally appropriate food and the social disadvantage that denies some people access to what most of us take for granted.

Emergency food provision forms just one part of a broader strategy aimed at resolving the causes of food insecurity in the community and among specific groups.

Red Cross is already developing ways to support people to improve the way they shop, cook, eat, plan, budget and exercise. It is through these mechanisms that we can make the changes required for people to improve their wellbeing, reduce their vulnerabilities and live longer, healthier lives.

It is encouraging that we are now asking questions about how to address the issue of food security internationally. But we must not overlook the very real problem of food security in our own backyard.