Photo by Melissa Walker Horn on Unsplash

Food insecurity exists when people do not have “physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.”

Lack of access to safe and nutritious food can have serious consequences, for example by jeopardising education and employment participation, health, and general wellbeing, both in the short run and the long run.

To address food access problems, food assistance programs in the form of supplementary feeding programs (for example, school lunch) or emergency food relief (such as food banks) have typically been the most popularly acknowledged interventions in OECD economies.

However, the question remains as to whether there is a need for adopting a broader perspective in the context of food policy which goes beyond food assistance programs. This is because the multidimensional nature food insecurity may be linked to other aspects of wellbeing such as health or financial wellbeing.

Our study, using a multi-item food security scale included in the 2020 wave of the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey, reveals that a significant fraction of Australians experience food insecurity.

The study also reveals that food insecurity frequently co-occurs with other hardships, including poor financial wellbeing, poor mental health, low levels of social support, poor physical health, inadequate economic resources, and housing stress. The experiences of hardships are also often shared among adults in the same household.

Food insecurity in Australia

Table 1: Percentage of individuals affirmatively answering each item on the Food Insecurity Experience Scale (FIES): Australia 2020

Note: The weighted person-level data is from the 2020 HILDA Survey. All questions are preceded by the phrase “During the last 12 months, was there a time when, because of a lack of money, you/you were…”.

We explore food insecurity using new data based on the Food Insecurity Experience Scale (FIES), an indicator of the Sustainable Development Goal of Zero Hunger.

Experience-based food security measures capture anxiety and uncertainty associated with food insecurity, in addition to considering reduced food quantity and compromised diet quality. Each FIES item (see Table 1) is associated with a different level of severity of food insecurity, and hence refers to a different experience of food hardship, typically in order of increasing severity. When combined in a scale, the eight items collectively identify the underlying level of food insecurity experienced by an individual.

We find that one in eleven Australian adults were food insecure in 2020, which is roughly 2.35 million individuals. Some are more vulnerable to food hardship, such as people with children in the household, and First Nations Australians. In general, household reports of food hardship are higher than individual reports of food hardship – nearly one in seven households have one or more members who are food insecure (see Table 1).

As Table 1 shows, one in fourteen (roughly 1.84 million) adults living in Australia reports that they were unable to eat healthy food, while one in sixteen (roughly 1.61 million individuals) reports eating less than they thought they should. One in twenty-five (roughly 1 million individuals) reports that they were hungry, but they did not eat.

The percentage of positive responses to each item consistently increases for food secure to food insecure individuals, reflecting the increasing level of hardship. For example, two-thirds of food insecure adults report that they were unable to eat healthy food, as opposed to only 1.4 percent of food secure adults.

Food insecurity often coincides with other hardships

Table 2: Co-occurrence of various hardships among Individuals and Households, Australia 2020.

Note: The weighted person-level data is from the 2020 HILDA Survey. a Percentage calculated for any other household members reporting the deprivation.

We find that an individual’s experience of food insecurity is not an isolated event but instead often co-occurs with other hardships (see Table 2). For example, slightly more than a quarter of Australians who are food insecure also experience low financial wellbeing. Overall, nearly one-third of food insecure adults face multiple other hardships, in contrast to only 3.5 percent of food secure adults.

Furthermore, hardships frequently co-occur among adults within the same household. For example, 13.3 percent of Australian adults reside in households where someone reports food insecurity; among food insecure adults, nearly one-third (32%) live in households where other residents also experience low social support. As shown in Table 2, three quarters (75.7%) of food insecure adults reside in households where other members report food hardship or other forms of deprivation.

Interestingly, even households where most members are food-secure may contain individuals who experience food insecurity. We observe that in nearly one in twenty (5.4%) households, only some members experience food insecurity. Among households with at least one adult reporting food insecurity, slightly less than half (44.2%) have some adult members experiencing food insecurity, while the remaining households report all their adult members facing food hardship. Thus, food insecurity often emerges as a shared experience among household members.

Implications and challenges

While food is abundant in Australia overall, food insecurity nonetheless affects a significant portion of the population. Importantly, food insecurity may be a concealed problem in Australia.

The fact that food insecurity is not an isolated occurrence and often coexists with other indicators of deprivation underscores the necessity for comprehensive social protection policies that address non-monetary aspects of wellbeing, such as mental health. Indeed, the same factors contributing to food insecurity may potentially trigger other hardships. Such concerns may warrant a ‘twin-track’ approach, including both short- and longer-term interventions to alleviate food insecurity.

Arguably, interventions should combine strategies for income generation, including enhancing productivity, accumulating assets, creating employment opportunities, and improving human capital quality. These efforts should be coupled with social assistance programs designed to promote equity, such as cash transfers, food subsidies, and the establishment of resilience-building mechanisms. These mechanisms protect the income and consumption of low-income households through social safety nets such as non-contributory social pensions, food and in-kind transfers, and fee waivers.

Our findings also underscore that household-based measures of food insecurity reliant on responses from a single household member are likely to underestimate the prevalence of hunger in the community, as food-insecure individuals may reside in seemingly food-secure households. Our results also highlight the importance of the personal context in which food insecurity occurs. Policies designed to alleviate food insecurity should be tailored to the specific needs of the individual, household, or local context in which it occurs. In short, the task is complex.


Editor’s note: On 7 June 2024, the original Figure 1 has been replaced with a new Table 1 to better reflect the percentage of each FEIS item, while a new Table 2 replaced the original Table 1.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *