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Urgent report ordered into Ministry of Social Development's use of controversial food grant calculator

An urgent report has been ordered by the Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni into her Ministry's use of a controversial food calculator. 

The Social Development Ministry is carrying 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. 

Following a 1 NEWS investigation earlier this month, 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 women were receiving less food than men

Community organisation Lifewise said the use of the calculator "is completely ridiculous".

Carmel Sepuloni. Source: 1 NEWS

Groups such as Auckland Action Against Poverty argue women are particularly disadvantaged, as the Otago Food Survey does not cover sanitary products - meaning women have to make separate requests for these items. 

Lifewise chief Executive Moira Lawler said WINZ "should not be in people's lives like that".

"I wouldn’t be prepared to explain to a government official why I've made the choices in my grocery basket so why should anyone else – the whole thing’s very humiliating and completely unnecessary," she told 1 NEWS.   

Since 1 NEWS' stories, Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni has asked for an "interim report on how that calculator is going, rather than waiting until the end of the trial".

She said she expects the report within a week.

When asked if it were fair that men receive more than women under the Otago Food Survey, Ms Sepuloni said she wanted to "get that interim report before I cast any judgement, but I have asked those questions". 

National's Louise Upston said what the Ministry was doing was "pretty appalling".

"For MSD to use a study without having talked to the authors, not understanding the limitations of that data and what it would tell them is quite frankly wrong."

Work and Income Auckland regional commissioner Mark Goldsmith said in a statement earlier this month the agency had been trialling the Otago University Food Cost Survey calculator across the Auckland region "to provide greater consistency across emergency food grant applications".

Mr Goldsmith said a "significant" range of questions were also asked by case managers over the food grants and he "wouldn't say that we don't understand" the Otago University data. 

"They actually didn't understand how we were using it and I think that now that's been rectified, they're actually quite comfortable and can see it makes a bit of sense.

"It’s important to note that information from the survey is only one thing we consider – we also look at each client’s all-round needs. We ask a range of additional questions as part of our standard practice," he said. 

However, Otago University was not convinced, telling 1 NEWS they were still concerned the food grant calculator could be underestimating people's food needs and were waiting for additional information from the Ministry. 

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. 

"The Otago Food Survey is designed to be used as a social indicator, it’s not designed to be used as a tool to work out how much people actually need for food grants," Mr Roundill told 1 NEWS.

He said in his experience, the Ministry had not asked beneficiaries for further information when using the Otago food grant calculator.

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