Is it time to change the way we measure food insecurity in Australia?

by | Jun 6, 2021 | Opinion | 0 comments

Food insecurity appears to be rising steadily in Australia, with the number of those seeking support from food banks having more than doubled to 31% from 2019-2020. The last few years have brought COVID-19, drought, bushfires and floods – disasters that have only served to accelerate an already growing problem. Unfortunately, there is no standard or consistent way to measure food insecurity in Australia. So how do we know how many Australians have been hungry or need food? And are there alternatives that can give us a clearer picture of what’s going on?

Food insecurity prevalence is currently measured through the Australian Health Survey, which is conducted every 3 years. The most recent survey indicates that 4% of Australians, about one million people, are food insecure. This percentage increases to 22% when we look at our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population. The problem with this survey in measuring food insecurity is that it is determined through one single question
“In the last 12 months was there any time you have run out of food and not been able to purchase more?”

Although this metric is better than nothing, it doesn’t give us an accurate picture of what’s going on and why and how bad the food security problem is. Fiona McKay and her colleagues suggest that this method could be underestimating food insecurity figures by about 5%.

So, what could Australia use to measure food insecurity? There are several other approaches used globally. Many researchers use the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Household Food Security Survey Module (HFSSM) when measuring food insecurity. The HFSSM uses 18 questions to assess household food insecurity over the past 12 months.

Based on the HFSSM is the Food and Agricultural Organisation’s (FAO) Food Insecurity Experience Scale or FIES. The FIES uses 8 questions that ask about the individuals’ food insecurity experiences over the past 12 months. It can determine whether an individual, household or population is severely, moderately or not food insecure. The FIES has been validated in several low income, middle income and high income countries and allows for the comparison of food insecurity between countries.

The 8 questions in the FIES are: During the last 12 MONTHS, was there a time when… 
1. you were worried you would not have enough food to eat because of a lack of money or other resources? 
2. you were unable to eat healthy and nutritious food because of a lack of money or other resources? 
3. you ate only a few kinds of foods because of a lack of money or other resources? 
4. you had to skip a meal because there was not enough money or other resources to get food? 
5. you ate less than you thought you should because of a lack of money or other resources? 
6. your household ran out of food because of a lack of money or other resources? 
7. you were hungry but did not eat because there was not enough money or other resources for food? 
8.  you went without eating for a whole day because of a lack of money or other resources?

Although the FIES is rarely used on its own, it could be used along with the Prevalence of Undernourishment tool (PoU) to measure food insecurity. The PoU is an estimate of the amount of the population whose diet is too inadequate to provide the energy levels to maintain a healthy life. The PoU complements the FIES by measuring progress towards ending hunger as the FIES focuses on the progress towards ensuring access to food. Both these methods combined will give a more accurate picture of food insecurity in Australia.

When FAO last used this method for Australians, the prevalence of food insecurity was 13.4% in 2016-18, which is about 3.4 million people in Australia – a far cry from the one million estimated in the National Health Survey.

Going forward, the health survey should include a separate section that includes the FIES. When used in conjunction with the PoU, this tool will help us collect more detailed data about food insecurity and give us a better grasp of the issue in Australia. This will strengthen our approach in effectively tackling food insecurity’s unique challenges. 

About the author

Shadia Djakovic is an Accredited Practising Dietitian with 10 years of experience working for the food industry and in community nutrition.
She is currently the Senior Project Manager at Healthy Kids which is an organisation that aims to promote, research and advocate for healthy choices for children. She is also a university lecturer teaching Public and Community Health Nutrition. Her passions lie in food sustainability, food security, taking a systems approach to public health, paediatric nutrition and promoting breastfeeding.

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Australia’s Right to Food Coalition exists to improve public policy to ensure the right to food for all.

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