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What gets measured gets mended

December 1, 2017

This blog was initially posted by End Hunger partner organisation The Food Foundation. Following an End Hunger lobby of parliament and Emma Lewell-Buck MP presenting a bill on measurement, they write about why it matters.

On Wednesday in parliament, Emma Lewell-Buck MP gave a first reading of the Ten Minute Rule Bill on the measurement of household food insecurity.  The Bill is asking the government to regularly measure levels of food insecurity in the UK, something that, until now, has been done infrequently and without leading to action.

Factors such as the inequalities of poor dietary health related to income, increased food bank usage and a rise in food prices are contributing to the urgency of this issue.

Why do we need the Bill?

What we do know is that the UK has the second highest food insecurity rate in Europe and the highest rate of childhood food insecurity.  We know that 10% of children in the UK are living in households affected by severe food insecurity.  We also know that delays in universal credit are putting extra pressure on poorer households and many people are earning wages that are not high enough to support the basic cost of living.  We know that food prices have risen and are 4% more than this time last year.

Food banks have reported concerns over predicted numbers of users as we approach the Christmas period.  A period where children are off school, household bills increase and parents are put under increased pressure.

There are also future uncertainties that are cause for concern.  Brexit could mean even higher food prices depending on inflation, trade rules and a lack of labour.

Previous attempts to measure

Previous efforts to measure food insecurity have suggested an increase in food insecurity amongst the elderly or revealed parents skipping meals so that their children could eat. But due to the infrequency and varying measurement approaches, no trends can be truly identified, and a lack of long-term data means it has not been possible to inform policy.

A survey by the Food Standards Agency in 2016 revealed that a third of those households in the lowest income quartile “often or sometimes” worried about running out of food.  Despite the shocking nature of this figure, there have been no further attempts to measure again.

Both Canada and the USA are already regularly measuring household food insecurity.

Potential approaches

There are two well-tested and validated ways to measure food insecurity: the United Nations’ Food Insecurity Experience Scale and the USDA’s Household Food Insecurity Module Both of these measures capture the severity of food insecurity experienced by a household, with the Food Insecurity Experience Scale being more compact, while the USDA Household Food Insecurity Module includes an additional set of questions specifically designed to measure children’s experiences of food insecurity. The bill put forward by Emma  calls for the USDA module to be added to a new household finance survey that the ONS is currently developing (which harmonises the Living Costs and Food Survey and the Survey on Living Conditions).

The method involves asking a series of questions about people’s experiences of accessing sufficient quality and quantity of food, cutting back on food and going without food, and experiences of anxiety relating to insufficient food access. The results rank a household’s food insecurity on a scale from mild to severe.

Sustained household food insecurity increases the risk of poor physical and mental health through stress, nutrient deficiency and poor quality dietary intake.  Children living in food insecure household could not only be impacted in their ability to concentrate at school but not getting the right nutrients at an early age could have lifelong effects.

The Bill was successful in its first reading, so it will now gain a second reading and be subject to a vote.

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