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The case for measuring UK household food-insecurity

On Tuesday the 8th of November the Food Foundation, Sustain, Food Research Collaboration and Dr. Rachel Loopstra convened an interactive session in Parliament as part of the ESRC Festival of Science exploring why, and how, household food insecurity could be measured in the UK.

Recent analyses from the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations suggests 8.4 million live in food insecure households in the UK: unable to secure enough food of sufficient quality and quantity to stay healthy and participate fully in society. However, there is currently no routine measurement of food insecurity in the UK. An absence of regular data collection means the true magnitude of the problem remains hidden, allowing for government inaction.  November’s session built on a workshop convened in January 2016, when academics and representatives from civil society organisations discussed the problem of measurement. The conclusion of that 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.

This follow up session was convened to:

  • Build momentum towards routine national measurement and monitoring of household food insecurity;
  • Take stock of current activity around quantitative and qualitative measurements of household food insecurity in the UK;
  • Better network the research, advocacy and policy communities working on the issue of measurement.

On arrival, guests were given two new policy briefings, written for policy makers and other interested stakeholders.  The first details the public policy rational for measuring household food insecurity, while the second provides practical guidance on how this could best be implemented.

Key Facts

  • The health consequences of household food insecurity are long-term, severe and expensive. Food insecurity should be routinely measured in the UK so we know who is affected and can target policy and resources on prevention, thereby avoiding unnecessary increases in health care costs.
  • The UK government currently does not measure household food insecurity. The administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are taking steps to measure household food insecurity; however, each is using a different measurement tool which makes it impossible to form a UK-wide picture.
  • The number of food bank users is not a good proxy for the numbers living in food insecurity. Data from the 2014 Gallup World Poll indicate that 17 times more people lived in food insecure households than those who lived in households receiving food from Trussell Trust foodbanks
  • There are several well-tested, internationally recommended ways to measure household food insecurity – including the USDA’s Household Food Security Module and United Nations’ Food Insecurity Experience Scale – which could easily be added to existing survey instruments at marginal cost (approx. £50-75,000 per year).
  • In order to capture the lived experiences of food insecure people, the routine collection of quantitative data on food insecurity should be complemented with regular qualitative research programmes

The session was opened by Anna Taylor, Executive Director of the Food Foundation (00:00), after which Rachel Loopstra gave a presentation focussing on the nature of household food insecurity, the history of household food insecurity measurement, the methodologies employed internationally to measure contemporary food insecurity, and the limitations of these methods (02:40).

The session then moved onto plenary discussion (21:40), with a first round of comments used to take stock of current public sector initiatives occurring in this space.  Guests heard:

  • How DEFRA (23:00) is preparing to renew the national food security assessment within the lifetime of this parliament, and are particularly interesting in refreshing the metrics and data coverage within the chapter focussing on household food insecurity.
  • How the Food Standards Agency (25:25) has been exploring the issue of household food insecurity through its remit of protecting consumers’ interests in relation to food. The FSA sees itself having a role in facilitating, supporting and convening discussions around food insecurity, and in October 2016 convened a ‘policy lab’ session as a prelude to a wider process exploring how the FSA could contribute to the conversation around measurement.
  • How the Greater London Authority (28:40) has been asked by Mayor Sadiq Kahn to consider how food insecurity could be best understood at a London-level, and to lobby the government for national indicators.
  • How the Office for National Statistics (29:50) are preparing to make recommendations to government about what domestic data collection needs to occur for the UK to adequately report against its progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals. ONS are expected to recommend that data on household food insecurity should be collected at a national level in order to track progress against SDG target #2.1 – end hunger and ensure access by all people… to safe, nutritious and sufficient food all year round [by 2030].

The session then opened by to a wider plenary discussion.

  • William Baker, head of Fuel Poverty at Citizens’ Advice, commented (31:10) on what food insecurity researchers could learn from the experiences of others operating outside of the food policy community. We are planning to follow up with William through EndHungerUK – an umbrella group of organisations campaigning to end household food insecurity in the UK – and will circulate any outputs from these conversations in due course. Mark Fishpool, Chair of Middlesbrough Food Partnership, followed up on these comments (42:10) by stressing that the development of the national Fuel Poverty Indicator demonstrates that the existence of indicators alone do not guarantee the changes in public policy needed to alleviate the root causes of poverty and insecurity.
  • Lucy Antal from Liverpool Food People commented (39:30) that to adequately understand household food insecurity, adequate mapping of food access needs to be conducted. Steve Haines, Head of Community Engagement at Neighbourly, described (42:00) how a paucity of such data limits front-line organisations working on food insecurity and related activities such as food redistribution, and believes a more concerted effort needs to be made in mapping food supply at both a local and national level.  Alan Hallsworth, University of Portsmouth, concurred (46:50), and challenged the retail industry to open up their internal Monitoring Information systems to the health and nutrition community in order to identify critical gaps in food supply.
  • Liz Dowler, Warwick University Emeritus Professor (47:30) provided a summary of how local- and national-level research projects have been used to map food environments and at-risk populations.
  • Flora Douglas, University of Aberdeen, asked (52:20) whether the Department for Health have expressed any interest in the measurement of household food insecurity, describing how Scottish health authorities are ahead of the curve here and actively considering inserting food insecurity metrics into the Scottish Health survey. In response, the Food Foundation agreed that there are strong advantages of nesting food insecurity measures into a wider health survey, and reported that Public Health England have indicated they are considering the issue internally.  Anna Taylor closed the plenary (56:00) by challenging guests in the room to better link together the all-too-often separate political narratives around rising levels of i) household food insecurity and ii) overweight/obesity: arguing that there is an opportunity to better engage health authorities on these issues when one demonstrates that they are likely to co-occur within at-risk households.

The session closed with an interactive session led by Simon Shaw, Project Officer at Sustain, who introduced 5 research groups currently operating across the UK and thinking about the measurement and alleviation of food insecurity (57:00). They were:

  • Jacqueline McDowell, Community Food and Health, NHS Scotland, discussing how they have used community-led research techniques to explore food insecurity issues.
  • Sinéad Furey, Ulster University, describing work looking to identify a best fit indicator of household food insecurity for monitoring in Northern Ireland.
  • Flora Douglas, University of Aberdeen and principle investigator of the Scottish Government’s strategic research programme, discussing their development of quantitative measures of insecurity, and methods with which to capture qualitative experiences of food insecurity.
  • Rosie Oglesby, National Director of Feeding Britain, a new charity which has emerged out of the work of the APPG on Hunger, discussing their plans to support a range of local pilots and projects on food insecurity.
  • Martine Barons, University of Warwick, discussing their workwith two local authorities – Coventry and Warwickshire – to develop decision support systems around household food security.

During this closing session, we asked guests to tell us what work they were currently involved in around the measurement of food insecurity. Responses are currently being collated in a mapping exercise, in order to better connect the research, advocacy and policy communities working around food insecurity. We plan to disseminate the results of this in due course.  If you were not able to contribute such information during the evening session, please email Simon letting him know what work you have been involved in (previously or currently) around the measurement of food insecurity (quant and/or qual), and/or what work you are considering for the future.  Please include any relevant URLs and contact details with your message.

Please direct any general questions or comments about the event to robin.hinks@foodfoundation.org.uk.

Picture credit: Flora Douglas, @FloraD