Food for thought on measuring child food insecurity

Food is a basic necessity of life. You probably know the grim statistics: one in four children are stunted, approximately half of all deaths among children under 5 are attributable to malnutrition, and in the developing world alone, 66 million children of primary school age go to school hungry. These numbers are alarming and unacceptably high. And yet, they may actually underestimate the true extent of food insecurity.

Food insecurity goes beyond the problem of not having enough food to eat.

Food insecurity goes beyond the problem of not having enough food to eat. It includes aspects of food quality, psychological factors such as worry about food sourcing, and nutritional and non-nutritional consequences of inadequate access to food. Ironically, without data on how many children are food insecure, or where they live, we hope to achieve SDG 2.1, which calls for an end to hunger by 2030.

Measuring child food insecurity is tricky. Evidence on standard anthropometric indicators such as stunting or wasting (measured in z-scores, or, standard deviation units from the mean) are typically relied upon by programme managers and policy-makers.

Understanding the extent of child food insecurity requires additional sources of data on household food practices. However, it turns out that parents and child caregivers can be unreliable sources of information, often underestimating children’s food insecurity or failing to recognize how children respond and react to food insecurity. Children, on the other hand, are well aware of food insecurity in terms of decreased quality and quantity of food. They also experience shame and stigma associated with being food insecure. They recognize parental hardships, such as stress about food, and actively look for methods to alleviate it. Most importantly, children recognize how important food is for well-being, and grasp the complex social, economic and political factors surrounding it.

Bahatu Abrahamani feeds her child Memunatu, 2, some Plumpy Nut therapeutic food supplement in the village of Moglaa, Ghana.
© UNICEF/UNI192105/AsselinBahatu Abrahamani feeds her child Memunatu, 2, some Plumpy Nut therapeutic food supplement in the village of Moglaa, Ghana.

Although it is not feasible to ask very young children about their experiences of food insecurity, some research has explored self-reports of food insecurity among older children, or even investigated food consumption to understand age and gender dynamics around food. At the recent Seventh International Conference on Agricultural Statistics held at FAO in October 2016, among the research presented were analyses that explored child and adolescent food insecurity.

The UNICEF Office of Research—Innocenti presented preliminary research using Gallup World Poll data, which measures food insecurity as part of the Voices of the Hungry project. The analysis uses the Food Insecurity Experience Scale to develop proxy measures for global child food insecurity, and suggests that although the prevalence of food insecurity among households with children under 15 is the highest in Sub-Saharan Africa, the majority of the burden lies in South Asia.

Also presented at the conference was evidence from the Young Lives study in India, which showed significant differences in intra-household food allocation by gender during mid-adolescence. The longitudinal study showed a pro-boy gap at age 15 in the number of food groups consumed, and that boys ate more nutritious foods than girls.

Previous research in Ethiopia found that adolescent girls were more likely to report being food insecure than adolescent boys. Although all these studies add to a growing evidence base on how children experience food insecurity, the Ethiopia study is the only one to ask adolescent self-reports, thus highlighting the need for more research in this area. Ongoing studies in the US and Venezuela have begun to unpack this complex topic; however, we have a long way to go to capture children’s experiences directly.

Some food for thought on child food insecurity

How do children across the world perceive and respond to food insecurity? What are the causes and consequences of child food insecurity across different contexts? Do children within the same household face different food security risks? How do these risks differ across contexts, particularly where households are prone to adverse shocks, such as conflict and fragility?

It is important to keep in mind that access to food alone does not address the burden of food insecurity, for both adults and children. Food insecurity is a complex and multi-dimensional phenomenon that can only be addressed with a multi-sectoral approach.

Understanding how children experience food insecurity, how many children are food insecure, and why, can help better inform programs and policy, and will bring us closer to a world with zero hunger.

Audrey Pereira is a Social and Economic Policy Consultant at the UNICEF Office of Research—Innocenti. Follow her on Twitter @audsnends7. Thanks to Amber Peterman and Michelle Mills for their contribution.

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Link to the full program for the Seventh International Conference on Agricultural Statistics.

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