The COVID lockdown period in 2020 unearthed a number of significant social issues that were bubbling under the surface in Aotearoa New Zealand. Food poverty was one of them. And while not previously hidden, exactly, it’s an issue that took more centre stage as people were unable to access food from their usual sources.

Keen to respond, the government approached Kore Hiakai Zero Hunger Collective to identify the depth and breadth of need. With its extensive reach into food communities across the country, Kore Hiakai has developed as a connection point for all things community food distribution. In trying to get a handle on the issue – and rapidly – Kore Hiakai Pou Arahi/Executive Officer Tric Malcolm says a number of the anomalies of the sector became apparent. “For a start,”, says Tric, “there was not even a common understanding of what makes up a food parcel. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It can mean that there’s a level of adaption for a whānau’s individual need, which is a good thing. But with deeper investigation, what it could also mean, is that for some food providers, the focus has been more on providing food that fills rather than food that constitutes good nutrition.”

The lack of a measure to evidence sector practice makes not only quantifying the problem an impossibility but also shaping a response. Addressing that led to Kore Hiakai undertaking research in August 2020 to plug the knowledge gap. Kore Hiakai invited 42 community food organisations to participate in a survey. Thirty-four organisations from 15 locations around the motu responded.

The key findings from that research showed:

  • All 34 responders varied in their definition of a food parcel
  • Sizes of parcels differed vastly including around what constituted small, medium or large
  • Food distributors varied in the number of days of support provided for and also in nutritional value
  • Most (80%) applied judgement in preparing parcels depending on what food/produce was available at the time when endeavouring to address nutritional value
  • Four responders had consulted the advice a professional nutritionist/dietitian
  • More than a quarter of community food distributors regularly provide fresh fruit and vegetables; 65% sometimes. Donations of fresh produce is the largest determinant on inclusion
  • Different organisations have different protocols as to who receives their parcels.

Tric says that since COVID, more community organisations have become involved in food provision.   “Government funding made available for food distribution during COVID lockdown saw many more organisations enabled to provide food, especially mārae. And many have stayed with it.” Tric observes that the newer entrants tend to position themselves as distinct from foodbanks. “‘Foodbank’ as a term has become a dirty word. It’s associated with an old school, judgmental approach, one that’s transactional, more about doing something ‘to’ people rather than ‘with’ them. A lot of the newer community food providers are distancing themselves from that and their protocols can be quite different.”

Undeterred by the lack of standardisation revealed, Kore Hiakai next set about developing a workable common standard for what constitutes a parcel that delivers on the daily nutritional requirements for good health. The result 10 months later: the Aotearoa Standard Food Parcel Measure.

In launching the Standard in June 2021, Tric says Kore Hiakai is not asking the country’s community food distributors to change their practice. “Rather, we’re inviting them to use the Standard Measure to calculate what they are currently distributing. We know that the nutritional aspect may challenge the current make up of many food parcels. Together we will address that going forward.”

What is the Standard Aotearoa Food Parcel Measure? In shorthand, the measure is expressed in a deceptively simple sounding formula: 4x3x4@80%

Decoded, this means a standard food parcel provides for:

  • four people – 2 adults + 2 tamariki; 1 adult + 3 tamariki, etc.
  • four days
  • three meals a day.

And the food provided meets 80% nutritional standards.

The Standard measure can be multiplied or divided. A larger family might receive one-and-a-half or two food parcels. A single person may receive a quarter. “The measure can be scaled up or down according to people’s needs and still allow for the consistent measurement of food that is being distributed,” says Tric.

A guide on nutritional standards accompanies the measure. The guide provides examples of a Standard Food Parcel, serving sizes, and food that fits into each of the food groups. It examples food provision at 100 percent of nutrition standards. But, importantly it also recognises and encourages the place of whānau choice, which is why the standard measure is set at 80 percent. Kore Hiakai has tested the measure with several foodbanks and gained approval from health professionals and a dietitian.

Attaining the nutritional standards becomes easier when fresh food is added to parcels. However, sourcing fresh food is one of the greatest challenges for community food providers.

“We know that it will be difficult for foodbanks to source all the food included in the nutritional guide,” says Tric. “So we’re building opportunities to work with nationwide organisations like New Zealand Food Network and Aotearoa Food Rescue Alliance to make available the whole spectrum of food to community providers.”

With the Standard launched, Kore Hiakai’s work on the measure is far from over. The Auckland City Mission is one of the country’s foodbanks that will be piloting the Standard. Kore Hiakai will be working closely with the Mission and other community food distributors to monitor the robustness of the tool. “Getting an accurate measure on the volume of food needed is the linchpin to ensuring all communities in Aotearoa New Zealand have the food support they need.”