Meals just the tip of the iceberg

Two new studies examining the impact of Australia’s cost of living crisis show the health impacts of people trying to make ends meet.

A survey of more than 1,200 Tasmanians by researchers from Flinders University found it was not just food that families were cutting back on and have called for government investment in social safety nets, nutrition programs and ensuring access to food. 

As well as buying less and cheaper food, respondents also reported trying to cut housing and transport costs, selling assets, dipping into their savings, relying on credit, spending less on insurance, and curbing fun, non-essential leisure activities.  

“Those who were experiencing the most food insecurity adopted more of these money-saving measures, which was likely to be affecting Australians’ long-term health, as well as social and financial wellbeing,” Dr Tahna Pettman, from the Centre for Social Impact at Flinders University, said. 

They recommended that a new model of ‘social supermarket’ – a SA initiative providing affordable food and social support for people experiencing financial stress – should be expanded nationally. 

“Social supermarkets can provide a stepping stone between emergency food relief and mainstream food retail, and they ‘go beyond food’ by also providing opportunities for engagement, social support, and connections to empower people towards pathways out of food insecurity.” 

“Robust evaluation of progressive models like this is needed – this is especially important given ongoing effects of inequities, including insufficient welfare payments and wage growth, costs of living, and insecure work, which are entrenching chronic needs for food relief,” Dr Pettman said. 

Another new study from Flinders, the University of Newcastle, and the Hunter New England Population Health Service, published in Health Promotion International, revealed that families were spending about $25 per child per week packing school lunchboxes – noting that while healthy options could lower costs, often that was still not enough. 

Flinders University PhD candidate and dietitian Alexandra Manson highlighted that as eating well at school was key for children’s growth, learning and development, with schooltime food consumption making up one-third of dietary intake, the option of school provided meals should be considered in Australia. 

“Children eat 2400 lunches at school over their education, providing lots of opportunities for learning about food and developing references,” she said. 

“Yet food and beverage costs have risen more than 20% since 2017. This is contributing to the cost-of-living pressures on families, which also includes increases in other household bills, school fees and uniforms. 

“Currently, one in two children around the world receive school provided meals, and our research is now exploring parent and stakeholder interest in school provided meals, and understanding what different families might need in such a model.”