It is not as if hunger, malnutrition and the like are the sole preserve of the under-developed countries. Even a relatively advanced New Zealand seems to be plagued by growing food insecurity. Such a situation inevitably leads to elevated levels of psychological distress amongst thousands of adults.
'The association of food security with psychological distress and any gender differences,' a study by Dr Kristie Carter and colleagues from Department of Public Health at University of Wellington, explores the issue in detail and has 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 per cent 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 per cent more likely to suffer psychological distress and females 110 per cent.
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 per cent 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.