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Food insecurity and psychological distress in NZ

Lecture theatre

Monday 4 April 2011 8:55am

Food insecurity appears to be a growing problem in New Zealand and according to latest research from the University of Otago, Wellington is associated with elevated levels of psychological distress amongst thousands of adults. Food insecurity or the lack of access to safe, nutritious, affordable food, not only affects nutrition and physical health, but also the mental health of New Zealanders.

This latest study, ‘The association of food security with psychological distress and any gender differences’, by Dr Kristie Carter and colleagues from Department of Public Health at UOW has just been published in Social Science & Medicine.

“What we found is that people who are food insecure report higher levels of psychological distress, compared to those who have enough food to eat,” says Dr Carter.

“There was a significant 90% increased risk of higher levels of psychological distress in people reporting food insecurity after controlling for socio-economic confounders such as income and education.”

“This finding is consistent across males and females, but females report slightly higher levels of distress than males.” Overall food insecure males were 60% more likely to suffer psychological distress and females 110%.

Dr Carter says the strengths of the study are the large sample size (nearly 19,000 adults) from the Survey of Families, Income and Employment (SoFIE 2004/05) and the detailed socio-economic and health data collected by Statistics New Zealand.

Psychological distress is evident in younger age groups, non-Europeans, solo parents, people living in multi-family households, low socio-economic groups and those with poor health status.

The study broadly classified people as food insecure if in the last year they used food banks or grants, had to buy cheaper food to pay for other things, or often went without fresh fruit and vegetables. Using this definition, 16% of the SoFIE population was classified as food insecure in 2004/05.

Dr Carter says this latest study on food security reiterates associations between food security, income, and accessibility to material resources within households, and is broadly consistent with the results of studies done in New Zealand and other countries.

This study is unique in that the association between food insecurity and psychological distress was investigated in both males and females.

“Unfortunately we didn’t have the data to look at the effect of different roles of males and females on the association,” says Dr Carter. “Qualitative research is needed asking people about their household roles and the effect of not being able to afford enough food for a healthy life.”

Dr Carter says that when new longitudinal SoFIE data is available they will investigate in more depth the causal pathway between food security and psychological distress.

“The results of this study add further impetus to reducing food insecurity in New Zealand by implementing policies that enhance food security for thousands of at-risk households, particularly in light of rising household and fuel costs,” Dr Carter says.

This study was funded by the Health Research Council as part of the Health Inequalities Research Programme at the University of Otago, Wellington.

For further information, contact

Dr Kristie Carter
Department of Public Health
University of Otago, Wellington
Tel +64 4 8061617
Mob +64 21 485 797

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