Food as a dimension of poverty

Adequate food is essential to human survival and is a basic human right, enshrined in article 11 of the International Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights (ICSECR).  Ending hunger and food insecurity has long been a global priority. The Rome Declaration, adopted at the 1996 World Food Summit, committed governments to achieve food security for all and to eliminate hunger, with the target of reducing the number of undernourished people in the world by half by 2015. The first of the Millennium Goals reiterated this target (Goal 1.C).  The Sustainable Development Goals reinforce global commitment to ending hunger. SDG2 aims to end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture. Target 2.1 aims to ensure all people, particularly those who are poor or in vulnerable situations, are able to access safe, nutritious, and sufficient food all year round. While considerable progress has been made in reducing hunger and malnutrition in recent decades, the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) estimates that over 800 million people globally suffer from chronic hunger, while two billion people are affected by micronutrient deficiency.

While efforts to ensure universal access to adequate food has been underpinned by principles of availability, access, utilisation, and stability of supply, appropriate policy and governance are also essential. To reach the most vulnerable, it is critical that measures of multidimensional poverty capture individual experiences of food insecurity.

Food insecurity has historically been assessed at the household level. This approach does not provide essential information about the experience of individuals within the household, and is based on the incorrect assumption that food is shared appropriately between all members. Assessing food insecurity at the household level renders invisible the coping strategies adopted by households – and individual household members – to manage food insecurity. These may include some individuals reducing meals, prioritising those family members with larger calorific needs (such as children or working members of the household), limiting the range of foods and skipping meals. These strategies often seek to protect some household members at the expense of others and are often gendered. There is evidence that women, and in some cases adolescent girls, often reduce their own food intake in times of insecurity, sometimes without the knowledge of other family members.

What the "Assessing Poverty" research revealed about food deprivation and insecurity

The participatory research that underpins the Individual Measure of Multidimensional Poverty highlighted the gendered nature of strategies to manage food insecurity. Significantly, in some countries (for example, Indonesia) both men and women in middle age consciously reduced their food intake in order to ensure children and old people were able to eat. However, women often further reduced their own food intake to ensure men, who they considered in need of more food due to work demands, had sufficient food. Women described keeping such strategies from their husbands.

The participatory research also identified different levels of hunger and food insecurity. At the bottom level, participants described not having enough food, eating only one meal per day, or sometimes none, relying on certain foods to stave off hunger and fill the stomach, and having no diversity in their diet. Participants also spoke of poor quality or bland food. Participants described a scale whereby the quantity and quality of food is improved, although a reliance on starchy foods remains for many as they move to greater food security. Participants in the participatory research described as poor those people who have inadequate amounts and choice of food. Descriptions of being better off included eating a more diverse range of foods of higher quality and nutritional content, and eating not only to fulfill survival needs but also experiencing greater enjoyment of food.   

What the IDM studies revealed about food deprivation and insecurity

During the further development of the Individual Measure of Multidimensional Poverty through the IDM Program (2016-2020), studies that surveyed all members of the household illuminated both the different experiences of food insecurity between household members and the social groups who are most vulnerable. These studies demonstrated, for example, the high levels of food insecurity experienced by people with disability, and also uncovered that women with disability experience especially high levels of deprivation.

What the IMMP Food dimension measures

The IMMP Food dimension draws on the Food Insecurity and Experience Scale (FIES) developed by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO). It consists of one theme, constructed from a single indicator measuring food insecurity.

Theme 1: Food insecurity

There are eight variables, which ask about the direct personal and individual experience of compromising the quality and/or quantity of food eaten in the 30 days prior to the survey, due to a lack of financial or other resources to obtain it. The initial questions assess issues of mild food insecurity (worry about obtaining food) and each subsequent variable is associated with an aspect indicating a higher level of food insecurity — moderate through to severe food insecurity — according to the theoretical construct of food insecurity underlying the scale.

Stay up to date on the latest research, news and opportunities