A global survey has found that one in every six Kiwis ran out of money for food in 2011-12 - more than in all except eight other developed nations.
The shock finding contrasts with other data in an annual survey by the Paris-based OECD that put New Zealand near the top of the 34 developed countries on social indicators such as people's perceived health status and employment rates, and above average on relative poverty.
But experts said the key finding on food money reflected genuine "absolute" poverty caused by NZ's low real incomes and high housing costs.
Demographia recently rated NZ housing among the world's least affordable, with a median house price eight times the median household income compared with 3.5 times the median income in the United States.
Child Poverty Action Group economist Dr Susan St John said it was worrying foodbanks were reporting no let-up in need despite signs of economic recovery such as a 2.7 per cent increase in gross domestic product reported yesterday.
"What really matters for food is what you have left in your hand after you've met your absolute critical must-pay things such as rent and power. Food is the one that gets squeezed," she said.
Auckland City Mission chief operating officer Jacki Richardson said the mission, which supplies 69 foodbanks from Kaitaia to Thames, gave out 11,293 food parcels last year - 2.5 times the total before the recession.
"Over the Christmas period we distributed 2974 food parcels versus 2520 in the previous year," she said.
The Salvation Army, which operates foodbanks nationally, said recently that demand for food parcels had plateaued, but was still two-thirds higher than five years ago.
South Auckland Christian Foodbank manager Ian Foster said he was still giving out 20 per cent more food parcels than at this time last year, 90 per cent of them for beneficiaries.
"They are genuine cases," he said. The OECD figure is taken from a Gallup World Poll in 2011-12 which asked people in 160 countries, including 1000 people in NZ: "Have there been times in the past 12 months when you did not have enough money to buy food that you or your family needed?"
The 17.2 per cent of Kiwis who said "yes" was up from 10.3 per cent before the recession and compared with 10 per cent in Australia, 8.1 per cent in Britain and 4.5 per cent in Japan. But the eight countries with more food poverty than New Zealand included the United States (21.1 per cent).
The NZ figure matches Statistics NZ's annual household economic survey which asks people if they have not enough, just enough, enough or more than enough money to meet "everyday needs for such things as accommodation, food, clothing and other necessities". Those who said "not enough" rose from 16.2 per cent in 2007 to 18.5 per cent in 2010, but fell to 17.6 per cent in 2011, 16.6 per cent in 2012 and 14 per cent last year.
Out-of-town move solves dire rent predicament
Jillene Yansen is glad she has moved out of Auckland because now she can no longer smell the neighbours cooking dinners that she can't afford to eat.
"I don't eat breakfast and I don't really eat lunch, and just have a tea," she said.
"One advantage of being out here is that it wouldn't really matter if you got your power cut off because your friends are not going to see you, and you can't smell other people's food cooking thinking, 'Oh, they're lucky to have that'."
Ms Yansen, a 60-year-old grandmother who is on a benefit because of arthritis, has moved out of a Glenfield house she was renting at $370 a week to a one-bedroom farm cottage up a metal road 13km northwest of Silverdale to reduce her rent to $275.
She had only $50 a week left over after her rent in Glenfield for food, power, doctor's bills and other expenses.
She received an accommodation supplement and Temporary Additional Support (TAS), a top-up that is supposed to be for only three months to give beneficiaries time to increase their income or reduce their costs.
But Work and Income staff asked her to cut her housing costs every time she went in to renew her TAS.
"I had my name down for a Housing NZ house. I have gone to the local MPs to see if they could help. I have gone to everything and everywhere possible," she said.
"I moved out and lived for four months in a tent in the back yard of the property I had been living in. Some people I know moved in and I moved into the tent."
But that still didn't get her a state house, so last month she found the farm cottage on the internet. She can't afford a landline and there is no cellphone coverage except at a high point up the road.
Ironically, she still can't afford to eat properly because her accommodation supplement has been cut. She now has $80 a week after her rent, but has higher petrol costs even though she goes out only once a week.
Work and Income regional director Blair McKenzie said the agency had been "working closely with Ms Yansen in recent years".
"People are not expected to move where it is not feasible or appropriate for them," he said. "There is nothing to suggest that we asked Ms Yansen to move or to leave Glenfield."