Responding to food relief needs

Content type
Short article

November 2022


Sue Kleve, Danielle Gallegos


Food relief was designed to meet the needs of individuals and families during emergencies and crises such as natural disasters and the COVID-19 pandemic. However, it has evolved into a food safety net to meet the chronic ongoing needs of families struggling to put food on the table. There is evidence to suggest that food relief is no longer adequate to meet these demands or to address the food security requirement of providing families with ongoing access to nutritious food in socially acceptable ways (Berg & Gibson, 2022; Hall & Partners, 2022). This short article outlines the recent Australian experience of accessing food relief and the evidence on what services could consider in determining an equitable and socio-culturally appropriate response to food insecurity.

Why do people need food relief?

Individuals and families access food relief for a variety of reasons, including job loss, reduced access to income support, rising costs of living and natural disaster events. According to research conducted by Foodbank Australia Ltd (Foodbank, 2019), one in five Australians did not have enough to eat in the previous year. The most common reasons an individual accessed food relief were unexpected bills or housing payments, followed by living on a low income or pension (Foodbank 2019).

Food insecurity and demand for emergency food relief can also arise out of disaster events, such as natural disasters or the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, early in the COVID-19 pandemic, the demand for emergency food relief increased, with many people experiencing job loss or reduced working hours (Maury, Levine, Lasater, Vidal, & Ulbrick, 2020; Foodbank, 2021). Research suggests that the introduction of Federal Government COVID-19 related supports, such as the Coronavirus Supplement, JobKeeper and increases to JobSeeker, mitigated some of the economic effects of food insecurity (Australian Council of Social Services [ACOSS], 2020; McKay, Haines, Bastian, & Lindberg, 2021; Zorbas et al., 2022). Disaster events can also disrupt food supply chains, which, in turn, can affect food relief agencies’ ability to meet increased demand and provide high quality food (Hall & Partners, 2022).

What are Australians’ experiences of accessing food relief?

The experience of accessing food relief is often coupled with conflicting emotions; from gratitude to guilt, shame, disempowerment and a sense of feeling judged. Evidence from peer-reviewed literature in Australia has identified six key themes related to the experience of using food relief (Booth, Begley et al., 2018; Booth, Pollard, Coveney, & Goodwin-Smith, 2018; McKay, Haines, Beswick, McKenzie, & Lindberg, 2020). These themes are illustrated by quotes from participants in Australian studies on food assistance and relief (Booth, Pollard et al., 2018, McKay et al., 2020).

  1. Eroded dignity‘… problem with most of those is that … you have to go to an agency where they make you feel so degraded. They’re like “how much do you earn? What do you do with that money? Why don’t you have any money to buy food?” and it is embarrassing.’
  2. Lack of choice and the need for more autonomy – ‘… I don’t want to sound unappreciative … and it’s like, “Here you go, this’ll do”, and it’s a tinned can of spaghetti. It makes you feel like … You’re eating povvo food.’
  3. Dissatisfaction with services (access, types of food available) – ‘I've got like 10 tins of water chestnuts sitting in the cupboard, I’ve got … tins of fruit. You go because you need some food, but it tends to be that you get the same stuff’ and ‘the shutting down on the weekend, you know, people have crises on weekends … it is a real business structure.’
  4. The need for reciprocity – ‘(I was) one of the people that lined up every week and then I started volunteering and I actually like returned the favour, giving back to the community.’
  5. Going beyond food – ‘I really like the fact that with that one you’re actually doing something as well. I just think that anything where people can learn to become better … I would see it as a building and a stepping stone even more so because you get training.’
  6. Building in social connection – ‘We get a lot of people that don’t come here for the food; they come here because they know they can have a chat.’

What does the evidence say services providing food relief should consider?

International and national evidence (All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hunger and Food Poverty, 2014; Booth, Begley et al., 2018; Booth, Pollard et al., 2018; Lindberg et al., 2019; Nourish Scotland & The Poverty Truth Commission, 2018; Pollard et al., 2018; Salamon, 1987; Wills, 2017) suggests that services providing food relief need to be client-focused and consider the following:

  • Recognise that accessing food relief is traumatic for some and that support needs to be trauma-informed, welcoming and non-judgemental.
  • Reduce or eliminate eligibility criteria.
  • Work together with other services to improve access and go beyond food to provide skills development, employment options and opportunities for social engagement.
  • Build opportunities for social connection and reduce the power divide between staff and recipients.
  • Provide choice and optimise autonomy through the use of alternative models such as social supermarkets and community kitchens (where people cook and eat).
  • Integrate opportunities for reciprocity to increase self-worth and independence.
  • Involve people with lived experience in service delivery, service design and governance.
  • Set nutrition and safety standards for the food available ensuring it meets the needs across the life course and for those with medical conditions.

What are the implications for practice?

Organisations providing food relief should consider their primary objective in service provision. Table 1 draws on Nourish Scotland’s ‘Dignity in Practice’ project to provide a series of questions that organisations can use to guide improvements to their service. The questions cover dignity principles, service delivery and operational decisions.

Table 1: Questions to guide service provision in food relief
Dignity principles
  • Do we involve people with direct experience of food insecurity in decision making on the type of service and how it is delivered?
  • Do we provide opportunities to draw upon our clients’ strengths and assets and provide opportunities for them to contribute to the service?
  • How can we increase choice?
  • Do our clients have the power to choose their own food produce?
Service delivery and operational decisions
  • Do we know if there is expertise among clients that could be shared?
  • How can people be more involved so they can ‘give back’?
  • How can we involve current or past clients in decision making?
  • Can we change the way we receive feedback so that it is more inclusive?
  • How can we make our service more welcoming?
  • Can we review our eligibility criteria? Is there an option to work towards a ‘no questions asked’ service?
  • Are we confident that all staff and volunteers are non-judgemental and trauma-informed?
  • How does our service recognise the trauma and judgement that may come with using services?
Social connection
  • Does our service provide opportunities to connect with community and other services?
  • Can we have more social events to increase a sense of belonging (meals, BBQs)?
Food and nutrition standards
  • Is the food we provide both nutritious and contributing to clients feeling both nourished and supported?
  • Do we have criteria on food that can be donated?
  • Do we take into consideration special needs?

If clients are using food relief regularly to meet ongoing needs, organisations need to consider re-orienting their services or aspects of their services to address the reasons for food insecurity. This would include actions to prevent household food insecurity; that is, actions that promote employment, increase income, manage debt and facilitate stable housing (Loopstra, 2018; Pollard & Booth, 2019). In addition, actions that promote regular access to food that is provided in more empowering ways can be beneficial. This can include the development of social enterprises such as social supermarkets, fresh produce markets, community gardens, community kitchens and social cafes (Booth, Pollard et al., 2018).


Food relief is a response for those in acute need but is also used to meet the needs of families facing chronic food insecurity. Food and food-based solutions should be client-focused, dignified, nutritious, sustainable and equitable. In the longer term, services and practitioners can also focus on actions that aim to prevent food insecurity, such as assisting clients with employment, debt management and stable housing.

Further reading and related resources

  • Understanding food insecurity in Australia 
    This CFCA practice paper and its companion practice guide, Identifying and Responding to Food Insecurity in Australia, describe the prevalence, experience and impact of food insecurity in Australia, identifying the populations most at risk and exploring various responses.
  • WA Food Relief framework 
    Led by the Western Australian Council of Social Service in collaboration with multiple community sector stakeholders this framework provides a structure to support improvements to the service system to better respond to need and secure the basic right for every person in Western Australia to be food secure.
  • SA Food Relief Charter and Nutrition Guidelines 
    These guidelines recognise the challenges that the South Australian food relief sector faces, including sourcing enough food to meet demand and, particularly, sourcing enough healthy options. In response the South Australian Food Relief Charter (the Charter) and the Nutrition Guidelines for the Food Relief Sector in South Australia (the Nutrition Guidelines) have been developed to improve the availability of a nutritious food supply to food relief recipients.
  • Nourish Scotland Dignity in Practice 
    Nourish Scotland and the Poverty Truth Commission in collaboration with people with lived experience of food insecurity, staff and volunteers involved in community food initiatives and wider stakeholders explore what dignity means in practice and service provision. This report outlines four core tenants for practice: (1) Involve people with direct experience in decision making; (2) Recognise the social value of food; (3) Provide opportunities to contribute; (4) Leave people with the power to choose.
  • Reinventing Food Bank and Pantries: New Tool to End Hunger by Katie S. Martin (2021) 
    This book presents a new model for charitable food, one in which success is measured not in the amounts of food delivered but by lives changes.
  • The Stop 
    The Stop is a Canadian model that provides an alternative to traditional food relief models and strives to increase access to healthy food in a manner that maintains dignity, builds health and community, and challenges inequality.
  • Communities and Vulnerable People – Emergency Relief 
    This directory from the Department of Social Services provides information on a range of emergency relief services by geographical location.


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  • Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS). (2020). 'I can finally eat fresh fruit and vegetables': A survey of 955 people receiving the new rate of JobSeeker and other allowances [Press release]. Strawberry Hills, NSW: ACOSS. Retrieved from 200624-I-Can-Finally-Eat-Fresh-Fruit-And-Vegetables-ResultsOf-The-Coronavirus.pdf
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Sue Kleve is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Nutrition, Dietetics and Food, Monash University. Danielle Gallegos is the Director of the Woolworths Centre for Childhood Nutrition Research, Queensland University of Technology.

Danielle Gallegos is currently supported by a grant from the Queensland Children’s Hospital Foundation via a philanthropic donation from Woolworths. This article does not represent the views of the Foundation or Woolworths.

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