Food Security apparently optional for the Children of Aotearoa

Last night the government (National and ACT) voted down two bills that sought to provide food to children particularly in low decile schools. That is, children who live in the most economically deprived areas of the country. The bills essentially dealt with the issue of food security, or alternatively stated, food insecurity.[1]

Food security is considered as existing ‘when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life’.[2] It involves four essential elements: availability, access, stability and utilisation.[3] According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, availability is measured in terms of the quantity, quality and diversity of food available to consumers, while access is measured by both physical and economic access to food.[4] Access and availability are largely guaranteed through national level policy although there is no requirement for a country to ‘achieve food production self-sufficiency’.[5] Importantly, measuring the extent of food security at the national level (that is, that a country has sufficient levels of food to distribute to meet domestic demand) does not necessarily reflect the extent of security at the household or individual levels. A nation can be food secure at the national level while still food insecure at the individual level due to ‘unequal distribution of food within the country’ which may result from food prices and the issue of affordability.[6] Stability is measured through exposure to food security risk, as well as incidences of shocks such as price spikes, fluctuations in domestic food supply and political instability,[7] while utilisation measures the ‘variables that determine the ability to utilise food’ together with ‘outcomes of poor food utilisation’.[8]

Food insecurity has often been considered an issue of  inadequate food supply at the national level. But this is not the case in New Zealand, nor in most developed countries. Instead, it is often the lack of purchasing power on behalf of households.[9] In his entitlements theory, Amartya Sen emphasised similar issues of consumption, demand and access to food by vulnerable people.[10] Sen argued that a person will starve if their entitlement set is absent ‘any commodity bundle with enough food’.[11] Also, that starvation was imminent if there were a change in their factor endowment, such as, loss of land or labour power, or their exchange entitlement mapping, such as food price spikes or loss of employment.[12] He maintained that these changes would restrict a persons ability to acquire any commodity bundle with enough food.[13]

A problem that arises in respect of the Feed the Kids bill, is that critics imply the problem of food insecurity in New Zealand is not one of a chronic nature (as is often found in developing or least developed regions). Therefore, studies that suggest marginal improvements (and perhaps arguments such as Sen’s) which were largely responding to food insecurity in developing countries should not be used to defend policies that attempt to address transitory food insecurity in children in New Zealand through school lunch or breakfast programmes. The reason being that there is little evidence to show that outcomes will provide any significant benefit for the cost of such policies.  For instance, Dr Eric Crampton writes:[15]

[I]t’s hard to make a case for that we’d get any great benefit from the [school breakfast] programmes. Rather, we often find that they don’t even increase the odds that kids eat breakfast at all.


To the extent that they improve outcomes in some studies, we really can’t tell:

whether the effect is from changing the timing of breakfast, in which case we should instead have a morning tea break;

whether the effect is any better than just giving those families an equivalent cash transfer.

However, the cash transfer option doesn’t ensure that children will become food secure. By that I mean it doesn’t ensure that there will be food available or that they will have access to food.  I appreciate that a cash transfer gives the parent more freedom to choose the kinds of food that the child has available to them. However, a cash transfer may also incentivise food producers to increase the price of their foods to exact a benefit for themselves through the increased purchasing power made available at the household level. This could in effect neutralise any benefit that might have otherwise accrued to food insecure households due to affordability issues. Arguably, this problem could be overcome by adjusting for any inflationary effects. But that pattern is hardly desirable and contributes to the cost of government administration. Additionally, a cash transfer may not increase what the parent spends on food at all. Parents who find themselves without work, paying rent and utilities, school costs, and servicing other debts incurred while employed or those parents that simply don’t have enough money to cover the basic bills each month may not be able to increase their food spend, it may mean they’re able to cover costs that they had been unable to cover – car licensing, dentist, school costs, sports fees etc.

However, there are also issues for advocates of the Feed the Kids bill, such as, who supplies the food to the school? Can a government get value for money if entering into a supply agreement with a corporate (who would likely create terms more favourable to itself), or is contracting with a charity necessarily the best option since they may for example, source food products from corporations? There just seems to be a contradiction in fighting capitalism from the left – who are the main advocates of this bill, to partnering with corporations either directly or indirectly.

In principle, I support the Feed the Kids bill. But like many others have suggested, it needs some work. That would have been the benefit of getting it to the Select Committee where the public could make submissions and where robust research was carried out to attempt to construct an effective policy.

An area where I’d like to see research directed, is where food is targeted at the source. That is, where the government invest in local food production. It might be that there is room to incentivise food producers to produce surpluses that are supplied to their local schools. Sure, this is an un-worked idea but we shouldn’t just limit our imagination to cash transfers or supply by food corporations. There is a human right to food and in my mind that means it is a resource first. If the government can improve local food production by investing more in the sector to deal with issues of household and individual food insecurity then perhaps we can tackle a number of issues (such as employment, health, education) while also ensuring children are not subjected to food insecurity whether it be chronic or transitory.

The right to adequate food is recognised and protected in both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).[16] The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food defines this right as:[17]

…the right to have regular, permanent and unrestricted access, either directly or by means of financial purchases, to quantitatively and qualitatively adequate and sufficient food corresponding to the cultural traditions of the people to which the consumer belongs, and which ensure a physical and mental, individual and collective, fulfilling and dignified life free of fear…

The government also has obligations to meet food security goals as set out in the Millennium Development Declaration[18] and the Rome Declaration on World Food Security. [19] I haven’t even touched on issues of undernourishment, nutrition, food sovereignty, the role of agribusiness, deforestation, land grabs, climate issues, infrastructure issues, armed conflict, GMO’s. The topic of food security is vast, and is a priority at the international level. Pity the New Zealand government see it as optional. Perhaps, the next development in the feed the kids campaign, then might be to focus on the wider issue of food security at the household and individual level and find ways to address it that aren’t merely palliative, but involve addressing the network of challenges that cause food insecurity.


[1]  Some of the content of this post comprises parts of a dissertation I wrote for my LLM.

[2]  Rome Declaration on World Food Security.

[3]  FAO State of Food Insecurity in the World (2014), at 13.

[4]  Ibid

[5]  Christopher Stevens, Romilly Greenhill, Jane Kennan and Stephen Devereux “The WTO Agreement on Agriculture and Food Security” (paper prepared for the Commonwealth Secretariat, Economic Series No. 42, London, 2000), at 3.

[6]  At 2-3.

[7]  Ibid.

[8]  Ibid.

[9]  World Bank Poverty and Hunger (1986)

[10]  FAO “Chapter 2. Food security: concepts and measurement” in Trade Reforms and Food Security: Conceptualising the Linkages (FAO, Rome, 2003), at 28.

[11]  Amartya Sen Food, Economics and Entitlements (World Institute for Developmental Economics Research, United Nations University, 1986) at 8-9. For Sen, an entitlement is ‘the set of different alternative commodity bundles that the person can acquire through the use of the various legal channels of acquirement open to someone in [their] position’.

[12]  Ibid.

[13]  Ibid.

[14]  Stevens et al, at 5.

[15]   Eric Crampton “Breakfast” Offsetting Behaviour (15 May 2013)

[16]  Universal Declaration of Human Rights GA Res 217 A, III (1948); International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights GA Res2200A XXI 993 UNTS 3 (1966).

[17]  “The Human Right to Food” UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

[18] Millennium Development Declaration

[19]  Rome Declaration on World Food Security

5 thoughts on “Food Security apparently optional for the Children of Aotearoa

  1. I have questions regarding your two arguments beginning with the comment: “However, the cash transfer option doesn’t ensure that children will become food secure.”

    First, do you have any evidence for the claim that increasing cash benefits leads to food price inflation? In NZ, food price inflation is particularly volatile and mostly driven by weather patterns. Furthermore, despite the duopoly in food distribution in NZ, supermarkets are franchises and operate on relatively thin profit margins (particularly fresh produce, which spoils quickly and so is ineffectively monopolized). I find it implausible that a supermarket could raise food prices in response to what would amount to modest increases in income for a relatively small proportion of consumers. Especially given your second argument, which is that families are unlikely to spend the entirety of cash grants on food anyway.

    Second, what is your concern with families taking cash grants and spending them on non-food items? Do you think that families who are food insecure are not in a position to realize this themselves? That they do not make good choices about how to spend additional funds? Are you comfortable with the heavy paternalism this suggestion entails?


    1. Actually, sorry, I don’t think the second part of what I said was clear. What I mean to say is: if food insecure families receive cash grants and choose to spend them on things other than food, does that indicate a poor choice on their part? Is it not the case that families best know how to allocate their funds? A lot of research shows that even people in very poor parts of the world – people who are sometimes very close to starvation – still choose to allocate significant portions of their income toward non-food items/activities (e.g. Cultural events,

      It’s not at all clear to me that cash grants to poor families that are not spent on food would not improve those families’ welfare, even though it may not increase the amount of food they eat.


      1. Kia ora James,

        Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.

        With regard to your first point, I argued theoretically that increases in cash for a targeted purpose such as food could incentivise food price inflation, not that increasing cash benefits does lead to food price inflation. Hypothetically, over time retailers might be incentivised to increase their prices knowing the government is providing cash transfers for that reason. However, I noted that this does not necessarily defeat the argument for cash transfers since a government could adjust the transfer to meet any inflationary effects.

        I agree that environmental factors contribute to volatility in food price inflation, but I’d argue more generally that volatility arises from sudden changes in the supply and demand pattern. For example, following the Global Food Crisis some countries imposed restrictions on exports, particularly staples such as rice, which affected the global supply of rice and resulted in price spikes.

        I agree also that a cash transfer would likely only be modest, but I’m not sure I agree that it would only be for a ‘relatively small proportion of consumers’. If 50% of individuals earn less than $24k, and households that earn over that amount but support multiple children (particularly in the decile 1 and 2 areas), the transfer could potentially apply to a significant proportion of consumers.

        On your other point, I argued it is not unimaginable that a family might not use cash transfers for the purpose intended by government i.e. food security, not that they are unlikely to spend their cash grants on food. I noted that other necessary costs may supersede purchasing food.

        What is your concern with families taking cash grants and not using them on non-food items?

        I feel like you have interpreted this in a way that I did not intend.

        I have no problem with families allocating the resources available to them in the way that they consider is best for their family. I most certainly do not think that if families receive cash transfers and choose to spend them on things other than food that it indicates a poor choice on their part. Rather, I think it indicates a systemic issue that families are not receiving enough income to meet even their basic everyday costs.

        My concern, which I should have made explicit, is that governments may use the number of cash transfers they distribute as a measure of food security whether or not households or individuals became food secure as a result of that cash transfer. For that reason, I don’t view cash transfers as a panacea for food insecurity. Moreover, I did not outright reject cash transfers. I noted concerns that could perhaps have been explored and addressed if the bill had been allowed to pass its first reading to allow a full Select Committee review.

        With regard to your final comment, I never argued that cash grants not spent on food would not improve the welfare of those families. I argued, in that case they would not necessarily resolve the issue of food insecurity.

        Nga mihi, Carrie.


  2. Thanks for the response, Carrie. What you’ve said is very clear.

    So here’s the centre of what I’m getting at (by way of Eric Crampton’s arguments): if families are made better off by cash transfers, and in at least some of those cases those transfers will be spent on on non-food items, in what sense is the Feed the Kids Bill an optimal policy response to poor households?

    Not only does “feeding the kids” restrict the set of items to which families can allocate funds to “breakfast food on school days”, but the administrative costs associated with the programs will mean less money is available per family (given how much is planned on being spent).

    So is do you support the bill despite being aware it’s a sub-optimal policy response to poor households? Or is there something else in your policy calculus?

    (Some people I know are quite happy with this being a sub-optimal policy, but they like the symbolism of the bill – I.e. “It’s doing *something*”. Others I know think that increases in cash transfers are unlikely in this political environment, so this is worth supporting as “second best”. But I don’t find either of those positions convincing as far as policy analysis goes – they’re aesthetic and political considerations, not welfare assessments).


    1. My apologies for the delayed response. I suppose I do consider it sub-optimal and I probably also agree that increases in cash transfers are unlikely in the existing political environment. However, I do support the idea in principle, one of my key concerns was the unwillingness of the government to allow it to get to Select Committee where some of those glaring issues might be addressed through public submissions and expert advice. In saying that, I take your point that a welfare assessment could take place anyhow without supporting the Bill to first reading. My worry is that without there being an active move to address the issue i.e. a Bill in play, so to speak, that the issue of food security, particularly for children, loses the priority it might otherwise have had.


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