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New Zealand’s child poverty stats grow faster than my potatoes

On Tuesday, 23 February, Stats NZ will release Aotearoa’s Child Poverty statistics for Year ended June 2020.

Written By Shelley Knowles. Published 22/2/2021

I can already see the scathing comments from New Zealand’s keyboard warriors who are convinced that child poverty is down to lazy parenting. They’re equally adamant that low income families can grow their own veggies to put food on the table.

Have you ever tried to grow a potato?

I have. Many times and failed. My pathetic crop was only marginally bigger than a 20 cent piece and that’s after considerable guidance from one of New Zealand’s well known garden stores.

I yanked out my last spud in despair and on one of those rare, scorching hot days in Wellington, headed down for one last shot at advice. “I’m here to buy veggies I can’t kill” I confessed to an employee who had just come from judging a Summer Show at one of Wellington’s fancier postcodes, judging vegetables according to condition, size and uniformity.

“They were a little shocked when I showed up”, he said, “there were seniors who had been gardening for years and they didn’t appreciate someone in their 40’s judging them and handing out the coveted awards.”

After all, judging is easy. Backing it up with evidence requires effort.

I’ve just spent $5.85 on 18 broccoli seedlings, because I can. My kids aren’t living in emergency housing or wondering where their next meal comes from.

Are more kiwi kids going hungry now than last year? Stats NZ will tell us on Tuesday, but I’m worried. According to the 2020 Child Poverty Monitor, over half (56%) of children living in families receiving financial assistance don't always have enough healthy food to eat, compared to just 12% of children living in families not receiving financial assistance.

These alarming statistics are prior to COVID-19 and before job losses. In December, Jacinda Ardern warned that child poverty will rise due to Covid-19 and rates of children in material hardship should be expected to rise strongly. More kiwi kids will be going without nutritious food in their bellies. 

UNICEF NZ
UNICEF NZ

Food insecurity increased significantly during the national lockdown last year. Prior to COVID-19, the Salvation Army were providing up to 1,200 food parcels a week but the need grew to a staggering 3,000 per week during lockdown.

UNICEF New Zealand launched an appeal for food and hygiene products and raised over $730,000. Every cent went to the foodbanks to support kiwi whanau around the country. 

Every child has the right to nutritious food but many people on low incomes are working hard and juggling complex health issues.

In April 2020, UNICEF NZ spoke to Kiwi Mum Malaina Tuafa, who reached out to the foodbanks for a bit of extra help. Although her husband worked full-time, money was tight and the bills were piling up. In 2018, her husband had a heart attack at work and he was still battling rheumatic fever from living in an overcrowded house.

“The food parcels are a real blessing” said Malaina. “The kids get so excited to look in the box and see what's inside. It’s like a gift to them. As a parent I get quite emotional about it. I think “oh my poor kids, they’re buzzing out on free food”, and it makes me feel a bit inadequate. That maybe I haven’t done enough to provide for them. We do have food at home but this extra bit goes a long way for us. Kids eat a lot!”

Ten months on, life is easier for Malaina and her whanau, but she worries about the rising rates of poverty and the impact this is having on children.  “I deliver food boxes to families who don't have transport and work at To Wahi as a volunteer community liaison officer. I know many people are really struggling to get by” says Malaina.

The Government should be commended for the expansion of Ka Ora, Ka Ako, the school lunch program which gets nutritious meals into hungry tummies. They’ve increased main benefits in March 2020 by $25 per week and introduced the Wage Subsidy amongst other measures.

The Government's debt level is expected to be $60b lower than predicted which is welcome news. However, making a dent in the child poverty rates is going to take courageous action, or we will continue to fail many children. 

October 2020’s Income support in the wake of Covid-19: survey, found that 62 percent of all main benefit recipients reported that they needed up to $250 more per week to cover basic household costs, up to a ten-fold increase on the $25 added by the Government.

Many parents are working hard and doing their best to support their growing kids. They don’t need ill-informed judgments, finger pointing and to be told to dig their way out of poverty with home-grown vegetables.

Veggie gardens and maara kai were once a normal part of our day-to-day lives, and still are for some. Poverty and other societal pressures can leave little time for financing and maintaining your patch.

We owe it to every Kiwi child to nurture not judge.

Check out these organisations who are offering support:

Wellington community gardens Kai ora Fund Countdown Growing for Good