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The importance of measuring hunger

March 6, 2017

Dr Elisabeth Garratt from the Centre for Social Investigation at Nuffield College – University of Oxford, blogs about why the government should be measuring food insecurity.

Rising foodbank use over recent years suggests that UK hunger is becoming more widespread. However, foodbank use is a poor measure of hunger, and more reliable data are not collected in the UK. Indirect measures demonstrate that the number of people skipping meals or compromising their food choices has also risen over time, while spending on food has fallen, but these figures provide an incomplete picture of UK hunger. At the moment, the Government aren’t keen on a national monitoring strategy. Attempts to combine data sources using innovative methods leaves large gaps in our understanding of hunger that could only be filled by systematic, national monitoring. So, why might such monitoring be valuable?

To tell us the scale of the problem
First, we do not currently know how many people in the UK are hungry. Statistical limitations mean that the best estimate – that 10.1 per cent of UK adults were hungry in 2014 – is considered ‘preliminary’. Data on foodbank use have limited value because some people in need do not use foodbanks, because they feel embarrassed or are not aware of the help available. We don’t know the extent to which foodbank data underestimate the prevalence of UK hunger, but evidence from Canada – where hunger is routinely monitored – suggests that less than one quarter of households in need use foodbanks. 

To identify groups most at risk
Second, detailed explorations of the characteristics of people using foodbanks has tended to be locally focussed, yet foodbank use is not distributed evenly across the country, or between groups. For example, ethnic minorities are underrepresented among people using foodbanks, despite their high levels of poverty, so foodbank data do not tell the full story of who is most at risk. More rigorous and detailed information on those experiencing hunger is important as it might help unpick the underlying causes of hunger, as well as identifying groups most in need of assistance.

To identify the structural and individual determinants of hunger
Third, much of the debate has seen commentators mention individual failings – including spending irresponsibly or being unable to cook – as causing hunger. These stereotypes are challenged by research reporting innovative budgeting and food preparation strategies by people using foodbanks. Evidence we have shows that hunger is – unsurprisingly – more common among deprived households, and that foodbank use is linked with benefit sanctions instead demonstrates that structural factors like incomes have an important influence on hunger.

To help explore the consequences of hunger
Finally, without measuring hunger we cannot estimate the scale of its consequences. In particular, the implications of hunger for people’s mental and physical health have been largely ignored. These risks might prove persuasive to government and policy makers given evidence linking hunger with increased health care costs.

Overall, therefore, there are clear arguments for monitoring hunger in the UK. It would allow the scale of the issue to be estimated, help identify the most vulnerable groups, and point to the causes and consequences of hunger. More importantly, it would provide compelling evidence for government that hunger does exist in the UK, and cannot be ignored. Only then will the problem of UK hunger be given the policy attention it so desperately deserves.

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