The COVID-19 pandemic has turned a spotlight on the issue of food security in regional, rural and remote Australia; an issue that has long been on the agendas of the National Rural Health Alliance and many public health nutritionists.
It is well established that the cost of food is higher in remote and rural locations than urban centres due to factors such as transport. Our most recent research using the Healthy Diets Australian Standardised Affordability and Pricing (HD-ASAP) protocol found that, for a reference family of two adults and two children per fortnight, a healthy diet (based on the Australian Dietary Guidelines) would cost Queensland families in urban centres $619 and those in very remote areas $813, which is 31% more.
On average, Queenslanders would need to spend 23% of their household income to purchase a healthy diet. But in very remote areas, a healthy diet would cost households with median income around 34% of their income. If healthy diets cost more than 30% – as in rural Queensland – they are considered ‘unaffordable’.
We know food insecurity has been exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic, as unemployment and underemployment severely reduce incomes of many households across Australia. Government policy responses included cash payments and the unemployment benefit (JobSeeker) supplement. For households eligible for the additional benefits (coronavirus supplement) introduced in May 2020, our modelling shows healthy diets would potentially be 13% more affordable. In very remote areas, the proportion of household income needed to purchase a healthy diet dropped to 30%. A survey conducted after implementation of the JobSeeker coronavirus supplement found 83% of welfare-dependent people reported eating healthier and more regularly than they did before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Given the well-established links between poor diet and increased risk of chronic health conditions, as well as decreased immunity, we have long advocated for policy and initiatives to ensure the availability, accessibility and affordability of healthy food and drinks for all Australians. During a global pandemic, this has become an even more urgent priority.
We also continue to advocate to ensure basic healthy foods remain exempt from GST. Our most recent Queensland data showed the differential between the cost of the current and healthy diets was largest in the most remote areas, meaning families in very remote areas could potentially save the most by choosing a healthy diet, in part due to this beneficial taxation policy.
We welcome the Australian Government’s commitment to extending the JobSeeker supplement – albeit as a reduced amount and for only an additional three months – as increasing household disposable income can protect against food insecurity. However, more needs to be done to increase household incomes on a long-term basis and/or reduce the high cost of healthy foods in rural and remote areas.