ABS blamed for hiding true scope of hunger

Many more Australians are hungry or skip meals than are detected by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, yet the federal government doesn't appear concerned, says the new head of the Public Health Association of Australia.

The bureau's national health survey, which found 5per cent of Australians faced food insecurity, underreported the problem, Heather Yeatman told Fairfax Media in her first media interview since being appointed president of the association.

Food insecurity is when people don't have access at all times to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life.

"Five per cent might sound relatively small but that's a million people," Dr Yeatman said. "That's a lot of Australians who are food insecure in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, particularly in relation to food production."

She said the trouble was the bureau survey used only one question. More comprehensive surveys by other organisations using 14 questions routinely found 15 to 30per cent of people in some communities faced food insecurity. A survey of the elderly in the Blue Mountains, for example, found as many as 15per cent went hungry, skipped meals or could not find culturally appropriate food.

"That seems totally unacceptable, yet that doesn't seem to be the focus of government attention. Why is that?" Dr Yeatman said.

Domestic food insecurity and international food instability were two "indicators of a food industry in crisis", she said.

Dr Yeatman, an associate professor at the University of Wollongong's School of Health Sciences, is the first public health nutritionist to be appointed president of the association.

She called on the government to acknowledge that the food system was in crisis.

"We'd like the government to acknowledge it is not business as usual. Things do need to change, and they need to change pretty quickly to avoid quite significant impacts on the health of the population," she said.

The question the ABS uses to measure food insecurity is: In the past 12 months, was there any time when you [or members of your household] ran out of food and couldn't afford to buy more? If the person answers yes, they are asked if they went without food.

A spokesman for the ABS said there were no plans to change the question, but when developing future health surveys, the bureau planned to consult about the content.

"That process is about getting agreement on priorities and trade-offs and making the decisions that best meet needs of key users," the spokesman said.

The Public Health Association has called on the government to create a ministry of food or a food council that would report directly to the prime minister.

Currently, food policy and production is affected by many government policies, including health, agriculture, fisheries, education, innovation and social welfare.

Dr Yeatman said there were no policy links between what government advises people to eat, what farmers are encouraged to grow and what the food industry is promoting.

The story ABS blamed for hiding true scope of hunger first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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