Debate about child hunger needed as numbers seeking food increase

Catholic Bishop of Hamilton Denis Browne supports the public debate on the food insecurity experienced by many New Zealand families.

Numbers of hungry people seeking food at night in my Diocese have doubled in the last two months. St Vincent de Paul staff running the Fullfill community vans in Hamilton, Rotorua and Tauranga say these numbers include many children, and they are struggling to respond to the increased demand.

St Vincent de Paul’s Loaves and Fishes project also provides lunch, or food for lunch making, in 23 schools in the Hamilton Diocese. Other Catholic groups throughout the country are responding to the hunger they see in their communities in many practical ways. These include running community gardens and foodbanks, and working alongside needy families through social services and benefit advocacy.

Many parishes routinely include a foodbank collection as part of our community offering at Sunday Masses, as both a symbolic and a practical contribution to the food insecurity experienced by too many New Zealand families.

These are actions undertaken out of love, concern and real understanding that there are many families in New Zealand who are struggling to put food on the table for their children. This is a cause of stress and anguish for parents, some of whom feel they face impossible budgeting choices between necessities of food, rent, power and transport.

It can be very hard for people who are sure there will be food on the table to understand why others in our country are going hungry. It’s easier to understand or imagine hunger overseas, in the midst of drought or famine.

But hunger in an agricultural country where the shops – and even the garbage bins – are full of food? It can seem too hard to believe.

It’s too easy to fall into a mindset that this must be the result of poor planning or poor budgeting. In some situations this may be the case, and appropriate solutions should be found.

Parents are the first protectors of their children’s rights. When family finances are stretched, food for children must be a priority. Where this doesn’t happen, because of factors like addictions, lack of knowledge or poor budgeting, these matters do need to be addressed.

But the debate about child hunger in New Zealand needs more than dismissive answers which categorise hungry children in struggling households solely as their parents’ responsibility.

If there was just one hungry household in a wealthy country, we might feel entitled to consider it a problem to be solved at an individual level.

But when food-insecure households are found in New Zealand among those receiving wages as well as among beneficiaries, and hungry children are found at schools from Northland to Southland, community and structural responses are also required.

Catholics are playing our part in responding to hunger at a community level. But the role of the Catholic Church is not simply to feed the hungry but also to ask serious questions about why so many go hungry in a country that produces and exports food.

The New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference wishes to see different policy options for food programmes in schools examined and debated, including those proposed last December by the Expert Advisory Group of the Children’s Commissioner, and the proposal in the private member’s Education (Food in Schools) Amendment Bill.

We would like to see this Bill go to Select Committee to enable a broader conversation to be held. The Catholic Church would like the opportunity to participate in that discussion.

Many of us remember that our society has previously ensured that children’s nutritional requirements were met through school milk programmes.

We believe policy options can be found that combine the good-will and contribution of the community and businesses with formal State processes to make sure that no child has to experience hunger at home or in the classroom.

Unlike many parts of the world, New Zealand has the resources to ensure that no one has to go hungry. What we lack is the compassion and the political will to make that happen at a government policy level.

Struggling families deserve the response of loving neighbours taking food out to the streets of Hamilton, Rotorua and Tauranga. They also deserve our participation in a real and serious public debate about solutions to the food insecurity experienced by too many New Zealand families.