One in four Aussie households goes without healthy food

Posted by Nicole Eckersley on 14th April 2011

Children drinking milkAustralia may be considered the lucky country, but many households face “food insecurity” or the limited ability to access adequate amounts of nutritional-appropriate foods, according to new research by Queensland University of Technology (QUT).

In a Brisbane study of more than 500 households, health researcher Rebecca Ramsey, from QUT’s Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation, found one in four households (25 per cent) in areas of Brisbane had insufficient access to food.

“Globally food insecurity is a widespread problem and its magnitude is particularly visible in developing nations,” Ms Ramsey said. “But there is growing evidence that household food insecurity in developed countries, such as Australia, caused by limited financial resources, is posing a significant public health issue.”

Ramsey said the study was the first of its kind to look at food insecurity and the potential health outcomes in Australia.

“It focused on areas in Brisbane in which access to food might be limited for one reason or another, including areas with higher levels of unemployment, limited public transport access and relatively lower income levels, and found that food insecure households were less likely to consume the recommended daily servings of fruit and vegetables compared to their food secure counterparts,” she said.

“Food insecure households were between 25 per cent and 40 per cent less likely to consume the recommended servings of fruit and between 15 per cent and 25 per cent less likely to consume adequate servings of vegetables,” Ramsey said.

“It is not that these households are spending their limited money on junk food, it is more that they may be unable to afford a variety of fruit and vegetables and instead may be purchasing larger quantities of staples such as rice and bread.

“From a health perspective food insecurity can be linked to overweight and obesity and chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes, among adults. These account for a large financial burden on the health care system.”

But Ramsey’s study also found that children from food insecure households were at risk of developmental, behavioural and social problems.

“Among children who were living in households that had food insecurity, we found they were significantly more likely to miss school, which may negatively impact on their academic achievement,” she said.

“Overall we found significant atypical behaviours displayed by children in these households. Based on previous studies this may occur as a result of physiological changes or behaviours associated with the stigma of not being able to get enough food impact on children in a negative way.”

Ramsey said the National Health Survey, which measured food insecurity, found nationally the figure had remained stable at about 5% of the general Australian population between 1995 and 2004.

“But one of the big problems with this measurement is that the latest figures are from 2004, so the impact of the global financial crisis remains unknown,” she said.