Food insecurity: Five good reasons for national level monitoring

Yesterday I attended the meeting “Mapping the way forward on food poverty monitoring”, organised by Sustain alongside partners The Food Foundation, OXFAM, the Food Research Collaboration and Oxford University, and with participants from academia, campaign groups, and the NHS, among others. The day’s main discussion focussed on monitoring food poverty – whether and how we should do this in the UK, examples from other nations (including the devolved nations) and the political factors that might contribute to government’s willingness to monitor food insecurity more systematically. Food insecurity has only once been examined on a national level, but this dates to 2003-2005 so these figures are now woefully out-of-date, and the government has been unresponsive to calls to monitor food insecurity more systematically. We enjoyed an excellent line up of speakers who shared a wide range of experiences and perspectives on the question. As a quantitative social scientist, the benefits of national monitoring of food insecurity over time seem a foregone conclusion. Yesterday’s event nonetheless highlighted several key ways in which monitoring food insecurity in the UK might benefit researchers, policy makers and the wider public.

UK Researchers have subsequently drawn on a patchwork of measures that approximate food insecurity in the UK. These include proxy measures of food insecurity such as skipping meals or changing shopping habits, examinations of food spending and calorie intake over time, and examinations of the links between austerity and food aid, and well as data from food aid suppliers, including the Trussell Trust and FareShare. However, even combining data sources and using innovative methods leaves large gaps in our understanding of food insecurity that could only be filled by systematic, national monitoring. So, what might we learn?

First, national monitoring of food insecurity would provide a headline estimate of food insecurity in the UK. Our current understanding of this is very limited. While data on foodbank visits provide a measure of uptake of (some) food aid, the stigma and embarrassment reported by users makes it likely that some people in need do not access food aid. Measuring need through receipt of food aid fails to count people who are unaware of food aid, who do not have a foodbank in their area, or those whose age or health prevents them from attending. The extent of this cannot be quantified in the UK, but evidence from Canada – where food insecurity is routinely monitored – suggests that less than one quarter of food insecure households use foodbanks.

Second, national monitoring is vital to identify which groups are most at risk from food insecurity. The Trussell Trust records basic information on the number of adults and children receiving food parcels, and local projects have explored the characteristics of food bank users in greater detail. Elsewhere, pensioner households and families with young children experienced the greatest nutritional declines throughout the recession. More rigorous and detailed information on those experiencing food security is important as it might help identify the underlying causes of UK food insecurity. For example, evidence that 60 per cent of food insecure Canadian households identified employment as their main source of income demonstrates that food insecurity is not confined to benefit recipients and might therefore represent a wider problem of low incomes.

Third, national monitoring would help highlight regional differences in food insecurity. There are substantial regional variations in poverty in the UK. In particular, housing costs – which form a large proportion of household budgets – vary hugely across the UK, but headline estimates of poverty conceal large differences in living costs. Although campaigns such as that for the Living Wage recognise differences in living costs between London and elsewhere, this still obscures large differences in affordability when calculated according to earnings and housing costs. National-level monitoring of food insecurity would allow regional and other patterns of food insecurity to be examined to better identify which communities are most vulnerable.

Fourth, collecting more rigorous data on food insecurity might identify the individual and structural determinants of food poverty. Some media representations of food bank users have taken a victim-blaming approach by emphasising individuals’ own failings, including spending irresponsibly and being unable to cook. However, qualitative research highlighted innovative budgeting and food preparation strategies by foodbank users, challenging this stereotype. Evidence from Canada also finds that food insecurity is highly sensitive to changes in income and employment, demonstrating the importance of structural influences on households. Such data could therefore serve both to highlight some of the causes of food insecurity, and provide a robust challenge to these negative stereotypes of vulnerable groups.

Finally, better data on food insecurity would enable the consequences of food insecurity to be explored more rigorously. In particular, the health implications of food insecurity are serious but often overlooked. Food bank users are at particular risk of mental and physical ill-health, which was exacerbated by experiences of food insecurity. Such data might prove persuasive to government and policy makers given evidence that food insecurity is associated with increased health care costs.

Existing evidence clearly offers a compelling argument for more rigorous and systematic monitoring of food insecurity in the UK. I believe that only then will the problem of food insecurity in the UK will be given the attention it so desperately deserves.


Blog post by Dr Beth Garratt