One in every five Australian children has gone hungry in the past 12 months according to a new report, with some even resorting to chewing paper to try to feel full.
The survey of 1000 parents commissioned by Foodbank shows 22 per cent of Australian children under the age of 15 live in a household that has run out of food at some stage over the past year.
One in five kids affected go to school without eating breakfast at least once a week, while one in 10 go a whole day at least once a week without eating anything at all.
“I think that’s a very sad indictment on us as a society,” Foodbank Victoria chief executive Dave McNamara said.
“The most vulnerable in our community – our children, our future – are suffering and I don’t think that’s right, I don’t think anyone thinks that’s right.”
Chewing paper to feel full
Mr McNamara said the report showed more children were going hungry in Australia than adults.
“We’ve heard stories of kids turning up with packets of chips and coke [to school], that was their breakfast and lunch,” he said.
“Some kids were eating paper. Their parents had told them, ‘There’s not enough food, if you get hungry you’ll need to chew paper’.
“This isn’t made-up. This is a story we heard setting up one of our school breakfast programs down in Lakes Entrance, which is a beautiful part of the country.
“No one’s spared. It’s not people on the street; it’s people in your street. It’s in every community across Australia.”
Collin Peebles, chief executive of the Geelong Food Relief Centre, said demand had exploded for services over the past three years.
“Only recently we had a seven-year-old girl walk into the Foodbank on a Thursday afternoon, she hadn’t eaten anything for five days,” he said.
He said mortgage stress and the cost of living were driving families to use foodbanks for the first time.
A mother’s struggle
Louise Holland knows first hand what it is like to constantly worry about not having enough food to feed her children.
The former nurse, from Sydenham in Melbourne’s north-west, took time out of the workforce to care for her ill husband five years ago.
He died in 2016, leaving her as the sole carer for her four children.
Once the family’s savings were gone, it became harder and harder to make ends meet.
“We would eat low-grade mincemeat, sausages … anything that was filling but that was cheap.”
“Sometimes the kids would go to school with no lunch. There would always be something on the table at night, but it might not have been as nutritious as it should have been,” she said.
Sometimes things got so bad, Ms Holland and her eldest son, Nathan, 20, would not eat.
“We thought as long as the younger ones were fed, that was the main thing.”
It was not until January this year that she decided to seek support, turning to the Helping Hands food pantry in Melbourne’s Airport West.
Families are allowed to access 20 kilograms of fresh food and pantry staples a week, for a gold coin donation.
“It was an incredibly hard step to take,” she said through tears.
“No one wants to admit they’re not coping, I’m a very proud person. But I’d just tell anyone who is struggling to put food on the table – get help. It is out there.”
High demand for help to feed families
Melanie Kent established the Helping Hands charity in 2007, initially to help drought-affected people in rural Victoria.
She now runs three food pantries in Airport West, Sunshine and near Bendigo, and demand is unprecedented.
Ms Kent said 600 families used the food pantry service every week, the majority of them women and children.
“There’s fresh food and healthy food here for people, but sometimes it’s also important for people to be able to have a treat,” Ms Kent said.
“I had one mum come to me and she said ‘You know, I’ve been able to pick up things from your pantry like muesli bars’.”
“She said ‘because of you, my kids don’t know that we’re poor’.
“So it’s important for different reasons for different people.”
Rising living costs hurting children
The report found parents living in poverty would often go without so their children would have something to eat.
Thirty-six per cent said they would skip a meal at least once a week so their children could eat, while 29 per cent would go a whole day at least once a week without eating at all.
The report found the main reason parents were struggling to feed their children was the cost of living, including mortgage or rent costs and utilities.
Mr McNamara said governments needed to address the problem.
“We need to look housing affordability … utility costs, we need to look at private health care, we need to look at minimum wage: what’s not just a minimum wage, but a liveable wage,” he said.
“Then on the other side of things we need to help the families who are currently suffering through this issue, so that means that the welfare sector needs to be properly resourced,” he said.
“As a community we need to say this isn’t right, we’re not going to stand for this, we need to change and fix it.”
The Foodbank Rumbling Tummies: Child Hunger in Australia report was carried out by McCrindle.
It surveyed 1002 Australian parents with children under the age of 15 and a further 602 parents living in food insecure households.