Serving Up Inequality: How gender impacts women’s relationship with food

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In our last policy analysis of 2017, Renata Anderson of Women’s Health Victoria provides us with an overview of how gendered disadvantage influences women’s relationship to food. Policy which fails to address these issues are negatively impacting on women’s health.

Women’s Health Victoria’s recent paper, Serving Up Inequality, explores various aspects of women’s health relating to food and nutrition.

Access to adequate nutritious food is recognised as a key determinant of health and poor diet is a modifiable risk factor for ill health.  However, the food we eat is influenced by many factors including our budget, what’s near us, our food literacy, cultural influences, family preferences, time, values (health, ethical considerations) and our cooking facilities. While it is often suggested that a healthy diet is more affordable, other factors come in to play that influence food consumption, such as convenience, taste, effectiveness of discretionary food marketing and cooking skills.

Some things haven't changed. Australian women spend far more time on food preparation than men.  Photo credit Marc Strizic (1928-2012) . Sydney woman preparing a meal, 1954. Courtesy State Library of Victoria.

Some things haven't changed. Australian women spend far more time on food preparation than men. Photo credit Marc Strizic (1928-2012). Sydney woman preparing a meal, 1954. Courtesy State Library of Victoria.

Each of these factors is influenced by gender, and more specifically gender inequality, which profoundly shapes women’s attitudes and access to food.

Though Australian women are increasingly in paid employment they still do the lion’s share of the housework and spend up to 2.5 times as long on food preparation as men. Food work includes meal planning, shopping, preparing, cooking and cleaning. Women often assume responsibility for the diets of their families, especially if they have children.

Time is a factor that influences food options. This survey found that 40% of Melbourne women perceived lack of time as the main barrier to healthy eating, with long hours at either work or study being the most significant cause. Women who reported time pressure as a barrier were 40% less likely to meet Australian fruit consumption guidelines (two serves per day) and 47% less likely to eat three or more servings of vegetables (Australian guidelines recommend at least 5 serves per day).

The experience of food insecurity in Australia is also gendered. Single parent families, 88% of which are headed by women, face higher risks of poverty and food insecurity. In Australia, 23% of single-parent families are food insecure and  social assistance, or welfare, profoundly shapes women’s spending power and food choices. A healthy diet costs about 18% of disposable income for a median income family. However, for low income families it can cost between 28-40% per cent of their household disposable income.

Food insecurity impacts psychosocial wellbeing and is associated with higher levels of stress, anxiety and depressive symptoms.

Factors other than gender shape Aboriginal women’s relationship with food

Food insecurity rates are higher for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women than non-Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women. In 2012-2013, more than one in five Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia were living in a household that, in the previous 12 months, had run out of food  and had not been able to afford to buy more, with people living in remote areas even more likely to be food insecure using this measure (31%). Fresh food and vegetables in remote communities can cost up to 53% more than in urban centres.

Policy implications

Structural factors such as lower wages and superannuation, single-parenthood, time off paid work for child care as well as the financial impacts of family violence mean that women are more likely to experience poverty than men.  In October 2017, Good Shepherd hosted an Anti-Poverty Week forum, Picking up the Pieces, on welfare conditionality where we heard Juanita McLaren, a single mother, speak on her experiences of being on the lone-parent payment. She cited having to choose between feeding her family or paying the electricity bill. Newstart and the lone-parent payment are insufficient and should be raised.

Alleviating the financial and time burden of food work on women requires a complex and long-term approach. Women’s Health Victoria recommends:

·         Development of a comprehensive, gender-sensitive national food and nutrition policy that aims to enable all Australians to understand, choose, consume and enjoy a high quality diet comprised of safe, nutritious, affordable and environmentally sustainable food.

o   Australia has not had a National Nutrition Policy since 1992, and plans for a new policy stagnated in 2013.

o   The new policy should recognise gender inequality as a barrier to healthy eating.

·         Taking a holistic and gendered approach to food insecurity, including:

o   Ensuring that women have access to the same economic opportunities, leisure time and power as men;

o   Providing adequate income support for unemployed people and single-parent families;

o   Increasing access to education, including food and literacy skills.

·         Challenging gender norms and practices that position food work as women’s work.

o   With women’s increasing participation in paid work, the expectation that they take on the ‘second shift’ at home is unfair, particularly when their male counterparts are not equally pitching in.

·         Increasing access to and affordability of healthy foods, including by:

o   Addressing structural inequalities that impact on food access, particularly income inequality;

o   Using regulatory and other measures to influence food formulation (e.g. star-rating systems), affordability (e.g. subsidies for healthy food) and access (e.g. food hubs);

o   Ensuring nutritious and affordable food is available in settings outside the home (e.g. residential care).

This post is part of the Women's Policy Action Tank initiative to analyse government policy using a gendered lens. View our other policy analysis pieces here.