Hunger was one of the major drivers of British emigration in the 19th century. Significant population growth from the 18th century, combined with repeated crop failures and urban migration, created a hunger crisis in the United Kingdom and Europe. Working-class people simply did not get enough to eat and what they did eat was lacking in nutritional value.
Land of plenty
In 1874 Louisa Johnson, who had settled at Careys Bay in Otago with her family, urged friends in England to join them in New Zealand ‘if you want to come out of bondage into liberty … Joe [her husband] says he will get you all such a meal as you never had at home.’1 A letter printed in the Labourers’ Union Chronicle the following year expressed similar satisfaction: ‘This is the country for living – beef, mutton, butter and eggs, and everything else that is good … We are as happy as the day is long. I would not come back on any account, for we can get something to lean over, no water broth, but a good belly full of beef.’2
New Zealand presented hungry people with the opportunity to eat well and improve their standard of living. Early European settler communities struggled with food shortages, but good employment options and the chance to own land meant that immigrants could more easily buy or produce their own healthy food by the late 1850s. Written correspondence by 19th-century settlers is full of talk about the good eating (especially of meat) to be had in New Zealand.
Many people went hungry during the economic depression of the late 1920s and early 1930s. Falls in export receipts and resulting unemployment of 12–15% meant that most people had less money to spend, including on food.
One woman who lived through the depression recalled the dire straits she found her sick neighbour in: ‘It was late afternoon and I found her and her two small children in bed. She looked really ill. I wanted to make her tea and something to eat, but she kept saying, “No, No”. I went home and made tea, then I went to her cupboard for sugar. It was completely bare except for a small bag of sago. I asked her if that was all she had. She said she was waiting for her husband to come home with the dole, but the scoundrel had been away for hours.’3
While some could fall back on home vegetable patches, the 30% drop in sales of staple food items such as pork, beef and potatoes suggested that many people experienced serious hunger. Cookbooks and columns in women’s magazines and newspapers explained how to make scarce food go further. Soup kitchens fed those who could not feed themselves.
Rationing during the Second World War
During the Second World War, tea, sugar, butter, eggs and certain types of meat were rationed so they could be sent to Britain and to American troops stationed in the Pacific. This did not cause people on the home front to go hungry, but it did restrict the variety of their diets and forced cooks to think creatively about meals. Most rationing ended in 1948 – dairy products and eggs followed in 1950.
Food security is when people can regularly get adequate, healthy food in legitimate ways. Since the 1990s researchers have expressed concerns about the number of New Zealanders who do not get enough to eat or are unable to eat a healthy range of foods for financial reasons. This is called food insecurity.
A 1997 study of low-income households found that one-third did not have enough food and 40% constantly worried about food supply. A 2008–9 nationwide study found 80.2% of New Zealanders said they could always afford to eat properly, 16.4% could afford to eat properly sometimes and 3.4% could never afford to.
At the same time, concerns were expressed about increasing obesity – this was associated with eating takeaways and processed snacks instead of healthy food, which was more labour-intensive to prepare. The people who experience food insecurity are likely to have problems with obesity.