The case for a standard measure of household food insecurity in the UK

Food insecurity affects life chances and harms the economy. Food insecurity pushes families to seek out cheaper and less healthy sources of calories and is associated with higher healthcare costs. Yet we have no way of knowing how many people in the UK are too poor to eat.

Number of food bank users is not a good proxy for the numbers living in food poverty/ insecurity. 13 million people in the UK are considered to be at risk of poverty and last year more than a million received food parcels from Trussell Trust foodbanks. However, food bank use is a very poor measure of food insecurity: in Canada, for every 1 person using a food bank, 4 more are food insecure.

Food insecurity has profound consequences for health and healthcare systems. Children living in food insecure homes have poorer learning outcomes, poorer mental health, and are more likely to have chronic health conditions. Severity of food insecurity - moving from anxiety, to qualitative deprivation, to quantitative deprivation — is associated in a step-wise fashion with higher prevalence of depression/anxiety, diet-related diseases, and importantly, with higher healthcare costs

Time to Count the Hungry, a new report published today, urges UK government to commit to annual monitoring of food insecurity. The report is the product of a workshop devoted to the problem of monitoring household food insecurity in the UK, jointly organised by Sustain with the Food Research Collaboration, the Food Foundation, Oxfam, and the Sociology Department of Oxford University. The workshop, held in London in January 2016, was attended by academics and representatives from civil society organisations with long experience of working on the issue, and included presentations on past attempts to assess household food insecurity, methods of measurement used in other countries and by the UN, and current activity in the UK’s devolved administrations.

The conclusion of the workshop was that the UK would now benefit from using a standard measure of household food insecurity, which could be used to monitor the problem at both national and devolved levels as part of existing social and health surveys.

There is a well-tested, internationally recommended way to measure food insecurity. The Food Insecurity Experience Scale (FIES) was developed by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. The FIES has emerged from past use of ‘experience-based food security scales’, and is based on the US Household Food Security Survey module. The US measure was itself the product of extensive research by the Unites States Department of Agriculture throughout the 1990s. It has been used to measure and monitor household food insecurity in the US since 1995 and was also adopted by Canada, where it first appeared in a national survey in 2004.

This module could be easily added to existing survey instruments (such as the Health Survey for England and equivalents in devolved nations, or the UK wide Living Costs and Food Survey) at marginal cost (approx. £50-75,000 per year). The method involves asking a series of questions about people’s experience in getting enough food to eat. The questions have a run-time of 1-4 minutes. They allow you to gather information on severity, as well as child food insecurity.

The report and workshop were supported by the emerging UK Food Poverty Alliance, which includes Child Poverty Action Group; Church Action on Poverty; Fabian Commission on Food and Poverty; FareShare; Food Ethics Council; Food Matters; Food Foundation; Food Up Front; Magic Breakfast; Nourish Scotland; Oxfam; Sustain and the Trussell Trust. This work was supported by funding from the ESRC Impact Acceleration Account at the University of Oxford.

Download the report

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