Measuring hunger


How do we really know how many people are hungry in the world? Anne Kepple, one of FAO’s food security experts, explains.

Food insecurity goes beyond hunger. A person is food insecure when they lack regular access to enough safe and nutritious food for normal growth and development and an active and healthy life. ©FAO/Karen Minasyan.

Q. How are hunger and food insecurity measured?
A. Firstly, there is no single way to measure all of the many dimensions of hunger and food insecurity. For many years, hunger has been measured using the Prevalence of Undernourishment (PoU). FAO calculates this every year for each country by estimating how much food is available, how much food is needed, and by determining what proportion of the population may not have access to the food they need. It is useful for monitoring national and regional trends but one drawback is that it doesn’t identify who is undernourished and where they live. 

This year, for the first time, FAO is releasing figures on moderate or severe food insecurity based on the Food Insecurity Experience Scale, or FIES. The FIES provides information about the adequacy of people´s access to food, and the severity of their food insecurity, by asking them directly in surveys about their experiences.  It helps us to better understand who is food insecure and where they live, and can shed light on the causes of food insecurity and its effects in different places – especially when it is included in large national surveys.

 

Left: Students sharing lunch in Uganda (©FAO/Isaac Kasamani). Right: A family eats together in Bangladesh (©FAO/GMB Akash).

Q. How does the Food Insecurity Experience Scale work?
A. Research three decades ago on the lived experience of hunger and food insecurity revealed that initially people worry about not having enough food and change their eating to stretch food resources, - often in ways that worsen the quality of their diets. As their situation grows more severe, they cut portion sizes, skip meals and eventually go without eating for one or more days. This provided the basis for a new approach to measuring hunger and food insecurity that has been used in many countries for years.

The FAO Statistics Division took inspiration from countries already using this approach and scaled it up to the global level.  The FIES is a relatively quick and low cost way to ask people about their ability to obtain enough food. The survey relies on yes/no responses to eight questions on food access, such as: Was there a time when you went without eating for a whole day because of a lack of money or other resources? Was there a time when you were hungry but did not eat because there was not enough money or other resources for food? And,was there a time when you were unable to eat healthy and nutritious food because of a lack of money or other resources?

Beginning in 2014, the eight FIES questions were included in a global survey conducted in almost 150 countries.  FAO uses this data, as well as data from national surveys from a growing number of countries, to estimate how many people are moderately or severely food insecure.

Beginning in 2014, the eight FIES questions were included in a global survey conducted in almost 150 countries. ©Gallup, Inc.

Q. So do we need both the PoU and the FIES to help us understand global hunger and food insecurity?
A. The PoU and the FIES offer two different but valuable lenses to understand food insecurity, and both of these indicators are used to measure progress towards achieving the Zero Hunger goal. The PoU helps to measure progress towards the target of ending hunger, while the FIES helps to monitor progress towards the target of ensuring access to food.

Q. You mentioned severe and moderate food insecurity. What are they exactly and are they the same as hunger?
A. While the word “hunger” speaks powerfully to people, it ranges in meaning from short-term physical discomfort to life-threatening lack of food.

Food insecurity goes beyond hunger. A person is food insecure when they lack regular access to enough safe and nutritious food for normal growth and development and an active and healthy life.

As we discussed earlier, the Food Insecurity Experience Scale provides estimates of how many people are facing moderate or severe food insecurity. This includes people who, while not “hungry” in the sense that they suffer physical discomfort caused by severe lack of dietary energy, may still be moderately food insecure. They may have access to food to meet their energy requirements, yet are uncertain that it will last, and may be forced to reduce the quality and/or quantity of the food they eat in order to get by. People facing severe food insecurity, on the other hand, have likely run out of food, experienced hunger and, at the most extreme, gone for days without eating.


Q. Do you think the world is on track to achieve Zero Hunger by the 2030 deadline?
A. Ending hunger and all forms of malnutrition by 2030 is an immense challenge and in the years since the Sustainable Development Goals were agreed to by every UN member country, we have seen that progress has been too slow. Soon, five United Nations agencies – FAO, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, UNICEF, the World Food Programme, and the World Health Organization, will release a major report, The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2019 which will have the latest numbers on global hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition. As I said earlier, it includes data on moderate and severe food insecurity based on the Food Insecurity Experience Scale (FIES) for the first time, as well as the latest Prevalence of Undernourishment numbers, and will help leaders and policy makers around the world better understand whether we are on track to achieve Zero Hunger.

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Learn more
Hunger and Food Insecurity 
Voices of the Hungry 
The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 




2. Zero hunger