Q&A with Rhiannon Cook on Sydney’s food insecurity issues

“It’s really important to understand the many factors – including food insecurity – that make it difficult or impossible for some people to make healthy food choices.”

Image: Lisa Fotios via Pexels, CC0 License

On Tuesday 6 June SEI in association with Sydney Ideas, will host Eating in the City, as part of the 2017 Food [at] Sydney Seminar Series. The seminar will include a talk by Rhiannon Cook, Policy Lead for the NSW Council of Social Service (NCOSS), who will discuss what the NCOSS is doing to help address Sydney’s food insecurity problem.

In anticipation for the seminar, we talk to Rhiannon about the underlying issues and causes of food insecurity here in Sydney, and discuss the role of the NCOSS in overcoming this issue.

What are the main food insecurity issues affecting people in Sydney?

We recently conducted a survey of people on low incomes, and of the 440 respondents, almost 5% said they couldn’t afford a substantial meal at least once a day. That’s 1 in 20 people on low incomes who are experiencing food insecurity on a regular basis. This can have an enormous impact on a person’s life. There are the more obvious health impacts. There are behavioural impacts. But then also think about the massive role food plays in bringing families, friends, and communities together. Think about what it would mean if you couldn’t invite people to your house because you couldn’t afford a cup of tea. Or the shame and stress you might feel around mealtimes, especially as a parent.

What are the underlying factors that make individuals susceptible to food insecurity in Sydney?

There are many factors, but poverty is a big one. Anglicare’s work on housing affordability shows that less than 1% of properties for rent in the entire Greater Sydney and Illawarra region are affordable for a single person on the minimum wage. At the same time, the price of electricity has skyrocketed. And many social security payments have not kept pace with real increases in the cost of living. So pressure on household budgets is coming from a number of directions, and for people struggling to make ends meet, food is one of the only line items where there’s some degree of control – you can skip a meal, but you can’t skip the rent without pretty dire consequences. But people should not have to be choosing between essentials such as heating and eating.

Is there an area of food insecurity or a particular issue that the New South Wales Council for Social Services is currently focused on?

Given the NSW Premier has committed to decrease the rates of childhood overweight and obesity by 5% over 10 years we’ve been focusing on the relationship between food insecurity and obesity. People often assume that healthy food is cheaper than unhealthy food, and therefore don’t see that poverty, food insecurity and obesity are linked.

Claims that healthy food is more affordable also often fail to take people’s lived experiences into account. Some people don’t have a fridge so they can’t store fresh food, while others don’t have the cash to buy in bulk. Transport might be an issue, or the time needed to cook. So it’s really important to understand the many factors – including food insecurity – that make it difficult or impossible for some people to make healthy food choices.

What is the New South Wales Council of Social Services currently doing to address food insecurity?

Last year NCOSS published the report Overweight and Obesity: Balancing the scales for vulnerable children. We’ve also done some work around breakfast programs, and the role they can play in alleviating food insecurity in some communities. And of course, we’ve supported our sister organisation ACOSS in fighting against cuts to our social security system and calling for more adequate payments.

We’re continuing to look at the community sector’s role in supporting vulnerable children and their families to access healthy food and eat well, and will be holding a free forum on this issue in Parramatta on June 28.

What urban planning policy actions are required to promote food justice in Sydney?

There’s some research that shows a higher density of fast food outlets in poorer areas. And disturbingly, schools in areas of higher disadvantage are also more likely to have fast food outlets nearby. So children who live and learn in these areas have much greater exposure to the kinds of foods we know are not good for them. We also know that there are some food deserts in Sydney where it’s really hard to get to a supermarket – especially if you don’t have a car. We really need to give communities the tools, knowledge, and power to shape the environments in which they live. To this end, we’ve been advocating for a health and well-being objective to be included in NSW planning legislation to create a stronger policy lever for people who want to shape healthier environments.

What actions can individuals take to assist in addressing issues of food insecurity in Sydney?

As an advocacy organisation, we always stress the importance of advocating for systemic change – many voices calling for change can be incredibly powerful.

There are also lots of wonderful people and organisations doing amazing work to meet the need that exists in our communities right now and these can always do with more support. Foodbank and OzHarvest, for example, both rely on volunteers to deliver many of their programs as do smaller organisations such as The Food Pantry in Marrickville or some neighbourhood centres. Organisations that deliver Emergency Relief services – such as Anglicare and St Vinnies – also regularly call for volunteers.

There’s also crop swapping groups, verge, street, and community gardens or various Pay it Forward networks: all these groups are contributing to fairer, more sustainable food environments.


Rhiannon Cook currently leads NCOSS’s policy and advocacy agenda across portfolios including health and mental health. She has previously worked as a communications consultant to the World Health Organization, working across the Western Pacific Region, and in numerous senior policy roles in Government human service agencies at both the State and Commonwealth levels.

Rhiannon Joined us for our Food [at] Sydney Semininer –  Eating in the City. Click here for details on this past event.