As we head into another Federal Election, one thing we haven’t heard a lot about from either the opposition or government is the issue of food insecurity. Yet, a harsh (albeit hidden) reality confronts us: Four million Australians, at some period over the last 12 months, have experienced extreme hunger. One in five of these people are children.
Foodbank, the NFP which acts as the kitchen pantry to the welfare sector, is working its hardest to rectify the problem. CEO Brianna Casey tells me convincingly that she strives to be out of a job.
As the largest food relief organisation in the country, Foodbank supplies groceries to 2600 charities nationwide including the Salvation Army, domestic violence shelters, refugee and asylum seeker resource centres and even local soup vans.
But the irony is not lost on Casey that during a time when Australians are going hungry, we also have a $20 billion food waste problem.
“The issue isn’t that there isn’t enough food out there. We produce enough food for the population, more than twice over. There’s a gap between where the food is and where struggling families are,” she explains.
As such, Foodbank is lobbying to adopt a national food insecurity strategy at the next election which will cross over in part with the already legislated food waste strategy.
“We have been very strong in advocating to the government, Labor and the Greens and cross-benchers that this needs to be a key election issue. We want a food security strategy in this election. We want to see more deep analysis as to why we have this problem and how can we make sure that the groceries and food we are getting to families are culturally appropriate while providing nutritious benefits,” says Casey.
But Foodbank has faced a number of roadblocks over the past 12 months, none more so than a public stoush with the Morrison government which attempted to reel back funding to the organisation in October last year. The proposal was slammed by The National Farmers’ Federation, the community sector and Labor forcing the Prime Minister to backflip.
[1/3] Yesterday I promised to review the Foodbank decision. I have listened and decided to increase the Food Relief budget by $1.5 million over the next 4.5 years and have asked the Minister to place more focus on relief in drought affected areas.
— Scott Morrison (@ScottMorrisonMP) November 12, 2018
For Casey, Morrison’s change of heart was a colossal relief.
“We’re not talking a lot of funding here – we are talking $750,000 per annum. That’s less than what ministerial offices have as a budget. We shouldn’t be debating short term funding,” she says.
While she sees a lot of good will channelled behind the cause from different parties, she concedes she can’t be certain whether either of the major parties will extend a public commitment to the crisis in government.
“I don’t think that government fully acknowledges the scale of the problem, but we have enough expertise in the country and peak bodies rallying around us. There is a powerful coalition of peak bodies supporting us because they can see the benefits to rural and regional Australia and to nutrition in this country,” she shares.
Despite the insecurity at times of government support, Casey’s encouraged by the role of big business and its shift toward social advocacy.
“Big business has been stepping up for a long time in this space,” she says. “We have a great relationship with The Australian Food and Grocery council, and last year they committed more the $200 million worth of retail of food and groceries to Foodbank. That’s a phenomenal contribution from big business. They acknowledge that we are not meeting the gap.”
Casey says that the business sector continues to be surprised that federal government funding is so lack lustre compared to their own contribution.
“We have other corporate partners who are doing incredible work and historically, we haven’t needed to rely on fundraising as much as we have over the past year. We are actively reaching out to corporate Australia and they can see the social return on investment and the benefits that brings.”
She believes political leaders often lag behind their business counterparts when it comes to making the calls Australians expect from them.
“It’s clear that big business understand their clients and communities. They are early adopters. For example, they embraced the same sex marriage debate, they have embraced the climate change debate way before others. They are seeing the real life impacts of decisions. Political leaders are lagging behind in these social policy changes.”
No matter what unravels at the election, one thing’s for certain: Casey is unlikely to fold on Foodbank’s pursuit easily.
“I’ve always had a strong social justice passion and I want to make sure that those who don’t have a voice, get a voice and that this voice commits to helping them,” she says.
“The longer we are left with a situation where people are living on incredibly low incomes, the greater the divide for food relief is going to be.”
“We’re not going to rest at Foodbank until we’ve done this. At the moment we feel like we are putting a band-aid over a gaping wound and need to do better than that.”