New insights are needed for an age-old problem, says Sara Kirk.

Sara Kirk

A recent survey (PDF) undertaken for the Global Food Security programme has revealed that more than half the UK population felt that ‘food security is not an issue that affects me, rather it’s more a problem for people in developing countries’.

This finding is notable when considered in the light of comments by the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier de Schutter, who condemned Canada over what he saw as unacceptable rates of food insecurity in that country, where one in ten families with a child under six is unable to meet their daily food (PDF) needs.

What would de Schutter have to say about the UK, where one in ten respondents had heard the term ’global food security‘, yet 55% agreed that they were ‘more concerned about food prices than all other food issues’?

Not just a developing world problem

Food security is said to exist ‘when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life’. Often synonymous with hunger, for many of us in the UK and in other parts of the developed world, food security is seen as a problem that is far from our shores.

But rising food prices in 2007-8, focused attention on both the availability and affordability of food, with the realization that the UK did not have the capacity to adapt to food shortages at the level of the food system, something which could impact on population health.

Yet, surprisingly, we have very little data on what this means for individuals or populations in the UK, particularly those who are experiencing food insecurity. In fact, we don’t even accurately know how many people in the UK are negatively affected, because these data are not routinely or consistently collected. The nearest we come to routine data collection is the Minimum Income Standard (MIS), which allows us to consider how much income is needed to achieve the lowest acceptable standard of living (PDF) in the UK today. (Defra’s annual Food Statistics Pocketbook does record UK dietary intake by equivalised income, as well as many related metrics; see Chapter 6.)

Nutritional consequences of food insecurity

Food security is directly related to income, and with household expenses such as rent and utilities often taking precedence over food, this can lead to a range of coping strategies that could impact nutritional status, including meal skipping, food coupon use, consumption of less expensive food and the use of food banks and community kitchens.

It is therefore no surprise that research has found that households with low levels of income are less likely to purchase foods that are typically associated with a healthy diet, such as fruits, vegetables, or wholemeal bread. Individuals who are food insecure are also more likely to be overweight, again focusing attention on dietary intake. It also implies that the acute issue of food insecurity may underpin the chronic problem of health inequalities.

Food for thought

With the issue of food security firmly on the UK political agenda, there is a clear need for further research to explore this issue – this needs investment in surveillance, so that food insecurity rates can be better monitored in the UK, and compared with other jurisdictions.

New research tools are also needed to measure and characterize food insecurity both at the individual/household level and at the level of communities (e.g. food access and availability), along with a detailed consideration of the policy options, including new modelling techniques, that consider the impact of proposed solutions on diet and health as well as environmental resources.

This demands our attention now, particularly to understand how food insecurity affects nutritional status across the life-course and within populations, with a focus on childhood, where impaired nutritional status is likely to have the biggest consequence.

About Sara Kirk

Dr Sara Kirk is a Senior Scientist at MRC Human Nutrition Research. Her programme of research aims to improve diet quality, and reduce the risk of obesity and other diet-related chronic diseases, by developing interventions to address the physical, social and political environments in which dietary choices are made. She has experience of working on the issue of household and community food security at Dalhousie University in Canada, being a co-investigator on a Community University Research Alliance (CURA) project called Activating Change Together for Community Food Security.

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