Controversial food experiment on poor abandoned after 1 NEWS investigation

A controversial Government food experiment on the poor in Auckland has been abandoned following a 1 NEWS investigation. 

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The Social Development Minister isn’t happy the Auckland-based trial ever took place. Source: 1 NEWS

The Social Development Ministry carried out a controversial trial of a calculator based on the Otago Food Cost Survey - which tracks the annual cost of common food items - to calculate the size of food grants in Auckland. 

Otago University told 1 NEWS it had not been consulted over the use of its data, and was worried with how it was being used. It was then found some women were receiving less food than men. It also did not take into account factors such as sanitary products. 

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Otago University officials are worried the agency doesn’t full understand the data the university has provided. Source: 1 NEWS

The ministry repeatedly defended its use of the calculator. 

The events spurred Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni to order an urgent report into the use of the food calculator.

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For years the ministry may have been underestimating the amount of food people need. Source: 1 NEWS

The interim report was released to 1 NEWS, finding the tool had been of little use to staff who would use their discretion to change the food payment suggestions and it recommended MSD stop using the calculator. 

"It's been binned and actually the results show MSD should be unhappy with the calculator too, as I am, so we're no longer using it," Ms Sepuloni said. 

"Discretion can be a good thing and sometimes it is not such a good thing so we still need to explore how we do this better."

The report also noted Otago University's concerns, predominantly that the Otago Food Cost Survey is based on costs to a household of four family members - with smaller households costing more per person. Small households (single parents of one or two children and single people) make up 77 per cent of food grant clients. 

The removal of the calculator was welcomed by Auckland Action Against Poverty's Ricardo Menéndez March.

"We're pleased the minister is stopping the use of the calculator, but we are concerned about the fact that this practice went on for this long without the minister actually having oversight.”

Mereri Heke, who receives a sickness benefit, said it was a relief that the calculator would not be used and a solution to food grant issues could be increasing the benefit amount. 

Despite it being labelled a trial, it has been used in Auckland since 2016, with former welfare advocate Jeremy Roundill saying it was used sporadically across different offices. 

Green Party's Jan Logie said the party expected food grants "to reflect the actual needs of people relying on them, and looks forward to an increase in base benefits next to reduce the need for people to have to beg for money for food". 

"We welcome the minister's intervention."