Food insecurity measurement on the Family Resources Survey

By Rachel Loopstra

One of the major developments for research and policy on UK household food insecurity in the past months has been the news that household food insecurity will be measured on the Family Resources Survey going forward. And no time has been wasted: with new data being collected from April 2019 forward, food insecurity measurement is already underway.

We, along with other NGOs and campaigning organisations, have been calling for the national measurement and monitoring of household food insecurity for years. Consensus for this critical step was first outlined in a report out of our workshop on household food insecurity measurement in January 2016. On the back of this, the End Hunger campaign made the measurement of food insecurity one of its key asks and Emma Lewell-Buck, MP, tabled a Private Members’ Bill, the Food Insecurity Bill, calling for measurement in November 2017. In the background, we’ve had the opportunity to meet with a team of analysts within the Department for Work and Pensions, who were instrumental in proposing that food insecurity be measured as part of the 2019 Family Resources Survey and going forward. In February 2019, we received confirmation that the 10-item Adult Food Security Survey module would be included on the 2019 survey

The placement of food insecurity measurement on the FRS, which is used to monitor low income and material deprivation, will provide important insights into how food insecurity, one critical dimension of poverty, fits alongside other measures and experiences of poverty. It will enable a detailed examination of how household incomes, assets, and other financial resources related to food insecurity. Hypothesised risk factors for food insecurity, such as housing costs, childcare costs, low-paid and insecure work, and insufficient benefit coverage, can be tested. As data accumulate over multiple years, vulnerability in the population can be monitored over time. Food bank statistics will no longer need to be relied upon to assess change in the number of people unable to access enough food. These data will also open new possibilities for testing the impacts of policy changes on food insecurity.

However, a key limitation of large-scale national surveys is that they take time. The FRS is run over a fiscal year from April to March. The earliest that data are available from this survey is one year after it finishes in the field. Thus, it will be at least March 2021 before these data will be available for analysis. As many have pointed out, we need policymakers to act now on the available evidence that implicates benefit problems, low employment and benefit incomes, and high costs of living as key drivers of food insecurity and food bank use.

It is also 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, which is used to monitor food insecurity in the US and Canada and worldwide. Any addition questions to a pre-existing survey must be justified and examined for fit within the current survey instrument. Thus, as many questions in the FRS reference current circumstances (i.e employment status, monthly income), a 30-day reference period for food insecurity was selected to also reflect current status.  However, only measuring food insecurity over a 30-day window means the annual prevalence of how many people experience problems accessing food in the population will remain unknown.

The problem with a 30-day measure can be illustrated by data from the US, where food insecurity is measured over both 12 months and 30 days. As shown in figure 1, over 11.8% of the population experienced moderate or severe food insecurity at some point in the 12 months prior to the survey. However, when these same respondents were asked if the food insecurity questions referencing the past 30 days, only 6.3% were classed as food insecure in the past days. Having both 30-day and 12-month measures enables analysts to quantify how transient or persistent food insecurity is in the population, but this will not be possible if only a 30-day measure is used.

Source: https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/food-nutrition-assistance/food-security-in-the-us/

However, we’ve recently learned that Food Standard Agency’s Food and You survey will continue to monitor household food insecurity using the same USDA questions, but on a 12-month basis. This will enable comparisons between the 30-day prevalence measure and 12-month prevalence measure in the population (albeit, Scotland is not covered in the Food and You survey).

It is not yet clear how food insecurity will be reported on or if it will be made a target to monitor poverty reduction based on findings from the Family Resources Survey. The decision to measure food insecurity was not a top-down, politically-motivated decision, but rather the result of diligent work of analysts, who identified that the lack of food insecurity measurement was a hindrance to understanding and interpreting rising food bank use. But how the FRS data will be used going forward is not clear. The UK Government is required to monitor food insecurity as part of their commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals, and it has been suggested that the new FRS data will be used to do this.  It is our view that since household food insecurity is an important measure of poverty, it should be reported alongside other poverty measures in the Households Below Average Income report.

Crucially, now that food insecurity will be measured on a regular basis, we need to see commitment to reduce food insecurity in the population.