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"Gaps in data can hold back help" - the importance of data in tackling the Cost of Living Crisis

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RhiannonEMumsnet · 12/10/2022 10:27

Louise Burke

Louise Burke is Managing Director of the Open Data Institute.

Open Data Institute Managing Director Louise Burke writes about the work the organisation has been doing to investigate the cost of living crisis and how better use of data could give us a more accurate picture of food insecurity in the UK today.

There have been few days in past months where the issue of the cost of living crisis has been out of the headlines. Whether it is the price of food, rising fuel prices or the inflation rate, it has been hard to avoid the fact that many families are struggling to make ends meet, or at least carry on with their lives as they did until recently.

In commissioning its just-published Food insecurity and data infrastructure report, the Open Data Institute was aware that this issue was impacting the lives of many across the country. But as a data organisation, what most interested us were the gaps in the data around food poverty, and the usefulness of what’s available.

We knew that some people were struggling to feed their families (that’s been widely reported), but finding out who they are (at a community, or aggregated level), and where they live in the country in greatest numbers proved to be far more difficult than it should be. This means that government, charities and organisations such as food banks were often basing their actions on out-of-date, inadequate, incomplete or seemingly contradictory data.

For example, the Department for Work and Pensions’ Family Resources Survey shows a ‘food insecurity’ rate of 7% (1.95m UK households), whereas the Food Standards Agency’s Household Food Insecurity report showed that 15% (4.1m households if extrapolated across the UK) of those surveyed had used a food bank or food charity in the last month (March 2022 figures). Yes, these are different surveys, but the end results paint a picture of food insecurity that is over 100% higher in one case compared to the other.

This is just one of the reasons that the Open Data Institute is now suggesting that steps are taken to develop a single, timely measure for food insecurity – one that can be used consistently and regularly to get a more standardised set of statistics. One that also allows like-for-like comparisons between different areas. This measurement could draw on information such as food bank usage, benefits data and child poverty data, and the data could be collected safely, without compromising the privacy of individuals. The Government could also call on the private sector to free up timely data on prices and food buying habits that may paint a more detailed real-time picture of food insecurity, both nationally and regionally.

As well as simply measuring the problem, this new metric could help with planning and measuring the impact of interventions by the public sector and charities, as well as informing healthcare providers of emerging problems. It would allow for targeted help for different demographic groups and easier modelling of how the addition of government assistance, tax cuts or benefits increases could impact food poverty.

This more targeted help is certainly something that our research suggests could come from better data infrastructure around this issue. We discovered that there were disparities in how food insecurity was affecting different parts of society. We found that families with children are more likely to suffer from food insecurity, with 9% of families suffering, compared with a national average of 7% (based on the Family Resources Survey data).

Different ethnic groups were also more adversely affected than average. Our research identified that 21% of households where the main earner is Black were food insecure, with 12% of Bangladeshi families in the same position. There were also many geographical differences, with 11% of those in the North East of England being food insecure, alongside 9% of those in Inner London and in the East Midlands. In the South East and South West, the figure is less than half that – at 4%.

Our new data tool highlights this picture across the country, showing how even local council districts can vary wildly when it comes to food poverty. We hope this will be a useful tool for local and national authorities alike, as well as food banks and other aid charities.

As we say in the report, there are big gaps in the available data around food poverty, so we’d be more than happy to hear suggestions for further data sources. We’d also be interested to hear from those working and volunteering with charities or other organisations in this area, informing us how better data may help you in your work.

Please visit the page for our Food insecurity and data infrastructure to find out more, and sign up for our The Week in Data newsletter to keep up to date with our ongoing research, including our upcoming report on fuel poverty.

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