Household food insecurity in the UK

A household food insecurity measurement tool has never been administered in a large representative survey that includes all four countries in the UK. However, from 2016, the Food Standards Agency included the Adult Food Security Module in the bi-annual Food and You Survey. This survey covers adults living in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The survey reports on levels of food security.  Findings showed that 10% of adults lived in households classified as marginally food insecure, and 10% reported living in household with moderate or severe food insecurity. These proportions are at similar levels to the 2016 results. Figure 1 shows prevalence levels across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, though levels are not significantly different between countries.


Figure 1: Proportion of adults age 16+ experiencing food insecurity in the past 12 months (Food and You, 2018). Source: Country comparison report - results tables

The annual Scottish Health Survey started collecting data on food insecurity in Scotland in 2017. The 2017 and 2018 surveys included three questions, generally based on the FAO’s Food Insecurity Experience Scale (FIES), though the first question queries worry about food running out rather than worry about not having enough food to eat, as is asked in the FIES. Based on responses to these three item questions, it was found that 9% of adults experienced food insecurity in the last 12 months in terms of worrying that they would run out of food due to a lack of money or other resources. Furthermore, 6% of all adults said they had eaten less than they should for this reason, while 3% of adults said that they had run out of food. However, it is worth noting that the survey may slightly underestimate these experiences of moderate to severe food insecurity as the latter two questions were only asked of those that were worried about running out of food.

Going forward, food insecurity questions will be added to the Department for Work and Pensions’ Family Resources Survey, which covers all four UK nations and samples 20,000 households. In 2019, the survey included the 10-item Adult Food Security Survey module and data should be available from 2021. This is a significant development for food insecurity research and policy in the UK. 

However, it is important to note that the measurement tool selected for the FRS is the 30-day USDA Food Security Measurement Module, rather than a module that uses a 12-month reference period. As highlighted in a recent blog, the proportion of people who experience food insecurity in the last 30-days is much lower than the proportion who experience food insecurity in a 12-month period. 

In addition to survey data based on UK household surveys, since 2014, the Food and Agriculture organisation has funded the inclusion of their Food Insecurity Experience Scale in the Gallup World Poll (GWP). The GWP is administered in over 140 countries, with about 1,000 adults in each country participating in each. In the UK and most high-income countries, the survey is conducted by phone. Because the annual sample is too small to provide a robust annual measure of food insecurity at the country level, the FAO releases data on food insecurity that has been pooled over three years of the GWP. These data are available in the FAO’s The State of Food Insecurity and Nutrition in the World report, which is released annually. Over 2016 to 2018, 5.6% of the UK population were estimated to have experienced food insecurity based on the FAO’s globally set threshold for food insecurity. This threshold is higher than the USDA’s threshold, hence, the prevalence is lower than results from the FSA’s Food and You survey. Differences in survey methodology (i.e. a telephone survey versus door-to-door survey) and the module used (i.e. FIES versus USDA Food Security Survey Module) may also explain the observed differences in prevalence of food insecurity. The FAO does not report marginal food insecurity.