ONE in 10 households in a Central Victorian region do not have enough food to eat, a snapshot of the region's health and wellbeing shows.
That rises to one in five households in parts of Greater Bendigo, where even households in some of the most well off suburbs are struggling to put food on the table.
The latest Active Living Census data reflects people's health and wellbeing almost a year before the outbreak of COVID-19.
Bendigo Foodshare manager Bridget Bentley said the widespread economic impact of the pandemic meant emergency relief services had seen an increase in demand for food in recent months - often from people who had never needed to seek help before.
All six of the local government areas in the Loddon Campaspe region had higher rates of food insecurity than the Victorian average back when responses were rolling in.
More than 15 per cent of households in the Central Goldfields shire had run out of food in the previous 12 months - more than double the state average.
Almost 12 per cent of Loddon households had gone hungry in that period, followed by 9.6 per cent in both Greater Bendigo and Campaspe shires.
More than seven per cent of households in Mount Alexander shire been without food.
Macedon Ranges came closest to the state average of 6.2 per cent, recording a rate only fractionally higher.
Though Greater Bendigo's overall rate was 9.6 per cent, some suburbs were harder hit by food insecurity than others.
Almost 20 per cent of households in the suburbs of Long Gully, West Bendigo and Ironbark had run out of food in the past 12 months.
Just over six per cent of households in Flora Hill, Quarry Hill, Spring Gully and Golden Gully had been in the same position.
North Bendigo, California Gully, Eaglehawk, Eaglehawk North, Sailors Gully, White Hills and Jackass Flat were among the worst affected suburbs.
Almost 14 per cent of households in Heathcote and district had gone hungry in the past 12 months.
"The recent Active Living Census confirms what we are already seeing on the frontline, which is that there are a growing number of people experiencing food insecurity in the Loddon Campaspe region, including Bendigo," Ms Bentley said.
"While it's concerning to see disparity among local suburbs and towns, almost all areas mentioned in the report had rates of food insecurity much higher than the state average."
She said the findings highlighted there was no 'one-size-fits-all' profile of poverty.
"It affects a diverse range of people in every community, and it affects them differently," Ms Bentley said.
"Despite this, marginalised groups, such as low-income earners, the unemployed, and Indigenous Australians are significantly overrepresented in the statistics."
Ms Bentley said there was a lot of great work happening within communities.
"Still, ongoing support is needed to address the social issues that contribute to food insecurity and poverty more broadly," she said.
She was hopeful the Active Living Census would contribute to better targeted and evidence-based policy responses and funding to fight poverty.
"One of the biggest challenges we face when it comes to curbing poverty in our region is stigma," Ms Bentley said.
"Meaningful inclusion is another. Long-term evidence-based societal change is more effective when problems are identified by the people facing them, solutions are created with their input, and they're empowered and supported to put them into action in a sustainable way."
The Long Gully People's Pantry arose from a suggestion from within the community.
Participants pay $10 a school term and volunteer to help out twice within that period.
In return, they have access to fruit and vegetables, bread, frozen and refrigerated foods, and non-perishable products.
Each household has a limit on how much they can take from the pantry in any one go, based on the number of people they're feeding.
Members are all on pension cards.
Long Gully People's Pantry coordinator Anthea Taylor said the concept was inspired by an initiative in the Geelong suburb of Norlane.
"People are very appreciative and they say it makes a big difference to them," Ms Taylor said.
About 25 households access the pantry - a number that has remained relatively stable, despite a global pandemic.
"We could probably handle 30 households, I think, without too much difficulty," Ms Taylor said.
She believed part of the pantry's appeal was being able to counter some of the stigma associated with asking for help by providing a way to give back.
Ms Taylor said the households that accessed the people's pantry needed help, but were reluctant to seek out some forms of emergency food relief because they knew there were others worse off than them.
"I think people in the Long Gully area just find it hard to make ends meet for the basics," Ms Taylor said.
She said a lot of the people who came to the people's pantry said having that help enabled them to use money they would otherwise have to spend on food for other household expenses, like bills.
A sense of community had built up around the initiative, also helping to counter any stigma.
The Active Living Census also provided insights into what people were eating and drinking, as well as exercise and gambling habits.
It showed more than 62 per cent of people in Loddon Campaspe were overweight or obese, compared with less than half of all Victorians.
Almost 20 per cent of the region's residents did not feel valued.
Nearly 60 per cent of Greater Bendigo residents consumed alcohol at potentially dangerous levels at least once a year - slightly higher than the rest of the rest of the region.
The state average was 41 per cent.
For more information about the Long Gully People's Pantry, contact Ms Taylor on 0409 136 567.