Let them eat cake challenging the dominant discourses of food insecurity
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Let them eat cake : challenging the dominant discourses of food insecurity. Dr Kellie McNeill Department of Sociology University of Auckland Departmental Seminar Series 9 April, 2014. Menu of Myths. Food insecurity in Aotearoa ? Surely not!

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Let them eat cake challenging the dominant discourses of food insecurity

Let them eat cake: challenging the dominant discourses of food insecurity

Dr Kellie McNeill

Department of Sociology

University of Auckland

Departmental Seminar Series

9 April, 2014

Menu of myths
Menu of Myths

  • Food insecurity in Aotearoa? Surely not!

  • ‘The best of intentions’: the charity discourse

  • ‘Shooting the messenger’: the public nutrition discourse

  • ‘Jo and Jolene Client (ne Citizen)’: neoliberal discourses

What is food insecurity
What is Food Insecurity?

  • FAO (1996) on food security

    “…exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life”

  • USDA on food insecurity:

    “…limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways"

  • Within the context of wealthy western nations food insecurity means people are:

    “at times, uncertain of having, or unable to acquire, enough food for all household members because they had insufficient money and other resources for food” (Nord, Andrews & Carlson, 2009, p.2).

Talking with their mouths half full
Talking with Their Mouths Half Full

  • The qualitative aspect of the research sought to understand:

    • The experience and implications of food insecurity

    • People’s strategies for addressing foodlessness and hunger

    • The impacts of food security on people’s lives

  • Rationale:

    • Limited micro level qualitative accounts in NZ

    • Social Services report levels of service provision (e.g. number of food parcels) and profile typical client groups – depoliticises the issue/no examination of macro causality

    • Public health frameworks use quantitative descriptions to report on nutritional implications – neglect social implications

Key findings
Key Findings

  • There are many myths about why people experience food insecurity – poor budgeting and spending choices, low levels of life skills…

  • The experience of food insecurity is often borne out in secrecy because of the stigma attached to it as a symptom of poverty and ‘poor choices’

  • Food insecurity contributes to social exclusion and marginalisation – diminished citizenship

  • The public nutrition discourse compounds the experience of deprivation that accompanies food insecurity

    • The priority concern for respondents was avoiding or alleviating hunger – NOT nutrition

  • The achievement of food security ALWAYS interacts with political economy

Plenty and want in godzone
Plenty and Want in Godzone?

  • National Nutrition Surveys consistently report that around 20% of New Zealand households with children were impacted by some level of food insecurity (Russell, Parnell & Wilson 1999; Ministry of Health 2003).

  • Over 15% percent of SoFIE respondents (n=18,950) were food insecure in 2004/05

  • Accepted figure across the general NZ population = about 10% are affected by some level of food insecurity, which has also been found to have a positive association with:

    • “sole parenthood, unmarried status, younger age groups, Māori and Pacific ethnicity, worse self-rated health status, renting, being unemployed and lower socioeconomic status”.

    • In multivariate modelling “Income was the strongest predictor…” (Carter, Lalumata, Kruse & Gorton, 2010).

Hamilton food aid results
Hamilton Food Aid Results

  • A census style survey of Hamilton food aid services showed that over a 12 month period in 2005/2006 this very average NZ community of around 130,000 people absorbed:

    • $1,157,623 worth of SNG for Food (WINZ)

    • 4,232 food parcels, each with enough food to feed a household for three days

    • 25,557 community meals

T he best of intentions
The best of intentions

  • Other than the SNG for Food, food aid in NZ is not state funded

    • WINZ and DHBs regularly refer people to food banks and community meals

  • The charity sector has been ‘written in’ to NZs welfare policies as a response to food insecurity

  • Charity food aid is largely overseen by faith based organisations

  • Religious imperative to feed those in need relieves the state from fully recognising the right to food as a human/citizenship right

Food insecurity deprivation and stigma
Food Insecurity, Deprivation and Stigma

The whole food [insecurity] thing can just put you in a very different space from other people, especially from those ones who…don’t really get it. No one likes missing out – sort of feeling like they can’t enjoy life in the same way as other people. I’ve been thinking about this a lot with the situation I’ve been in, and in my experience food can be a really big thing when it comes to showing up those kinds of differences. (Meredith)

I guess you just don’t want to be seen as not coping, and you don’t want to feel like you’re not coping. You kind of just work at keeping things looking good from the outside looking in. You’re doing your best, you know. And when you’re doing your best and still not cutting it, then you don’t really want other people rubbing your nose in it. (Sheryl)

Rationalising disrupted nutrition
Rationalising Disrupted Nutrition

People have got it wrong when they say you need three meals a day. No, that three meals a day thing – that’s crap. I look at it like this for me. I tell myself that I haven’t done a hard day’s work, so what have I got to be hungry for? (Wayne)

In a way, I’m just living healthier – that’s all it is. I’m eating in smaller portions, so really I’m just eating consistently healthier. And you just don’t really need the range of elaborate foods that everyone thinks you do… But I’ve been forced to think like that, which is kind of fucked actually. It’s rather...depriving. (Christina)

I think to myself that part of the reason that I’m fasting is that I want to master the hold and the addiction that my body has on food. (Sandy)

Entrenchment of disrupted eating
Entrenchment of Disrupted Eating

It’s normal for me to just have one meal a day. That’s my reality and I’m happy with that…Now that meal could be breakfast, lunch or tea – but for me it’s just that meal a day… In the evening I fill the time with cups of tea and coffee if I’m hungry. Just hot drinks. I drink hot water occasionally. (Wayne)

I’m sort of in a routine with the situation where I make a conscious decision and say to myself, “Right. This is where we’re at. I’m going to fast”, and I’ll just take fluids for the day... When I’m fasting I’m preserving food to meet my son’s needs. I will avoid doing the food because I know that there will be enough for him if I go without. (Sandy)

…I miss them [lunch and breakfast] altogether and just have dinner. Dinner is my main meal. I find that when I’m working I don’t eat as much. It keeps me busy and spares me a meal… I just go and have a cigarette and a cup of tea and that’s it – I’m back in there. (Rob)

I don’t usually eat until night time. If food’s running low I cut that evening meal out as well. Or I’ll have something that’s not a balanced meal. Like a sandwich or something. That happens more often than not. … I quite often have a coffee instead of an evening meal. (Faye)

Nutrition interrupted
Nutrition Interrupted

…you quite often sort of end up just kind of concentrating on dealing to the hunger side rather than thinking too hard about what it is you’re actually eating. (Wayne)

Compounding the experience
Compounding the Experience

  • Examining the problem of food insecurity from a health and public nutrition paradigm assumes that:

    • The health and nutrition consequences of the experience are paramount

    • Poor nutrition is the result of poor food choices

    • The best intervention measure to address poor nutrition is targeted social marketing

  • Food insecure people employ a range of strategies to address their situation. The public nutrition message stigmatises many of these as ‘bad’ rather than ‘rational’

  • The effectiveness of public nutrition campaigns is limited because the approach taken does not match the lived realities of many members of their target audiences = chronic policy failure

3 neoliberalism clients or citizens
3. Neoliberalism: Clients or Citizens?

  • The language of New Public Management has been widely adopted within both state and NGO apparatus

  • The residual welfare state – means testing versus universality

    • ‘Soft residualism’ also adopted by the charity sector

  • Growth of food insecurity among the working poor

  • Assignment of blame at the individual level implies that food insecurity is an outcome of poor choices rather than structural conditions

Food insecurity a wicked problem
Food Insecurity – a ‘Wicked Problem’

The classical systems approach… is based on the assumption that a planning project can be organised into distinct phases: ‘understand the problem’, ‘gather the information’, ‘synthesize the information and wait for the creative leap’, ‘work out solutions’ and the like. For wicked problems, however, this type of scheme does not work.

(Rittel & Webber, 1973, p. 161)

  • Broadening the existing range of ‘expert’ stakeholders to include ‘those who talk with their mouths half full’ opens up opportunities to develop definitions of the problem of food insecurity grounded in first-hand experiences that could more helpfully direct future re-solutions…


Carter, K., Lalumata, T., Kruse, K., & Gorton, D. (2010). What are the determinants of food insecurity in New Zealand and does this differ for males and females? Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, online.

McNeill (2011). Talking with Their Mouths Half Full: food insecurity in the Hamilton community. [Doctoral dissertation]. University of Waikato, New Zealand.

Ministry of Health. (2003). NZ Food NZ Children: findings of the 2002 National Children's Nutrition Survey. Wellington: Ministry of Health.

Nord, M., Andrews, M., & Carlson, S. (2009). Household Food Security in the United States, 2008: Economic Research Report Number 83. USDA Economic Research Service.

Russell, D., Wilson, N., Parnell, W., & Faed, J. (1999). Key Results of the 1997 National Nutrition Survey. Ministry of Health. Wellington: Ministry of Health.