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How Do You Measure Hunger?

There are no international standards for measuring hunger and even defining the term is fraught with difficulty. But for WFP these are crucial questions and over the years the agency has developed its own approach, as Caroline Chaumont explains.

Every year, WFP conducts about 90 surveys to assess the food security situation of population all around the world. 

The difficulty is that there are no single international agreed standards and simple indicators to measure food insecurity. For malnutrition, they exist. Nutritionists use body weight and height and the circumference of the upper arm. For food insecurity, no such measurements exist. 

Over the years, WFP has established its own standardized methodology to determine whether a household is food insecure. When we interview households, we ask how often they ate in the last week and what they ate. We look at the frequency of meals and at the diversity of a diet. 

But food insecurity is more than food consumption. Understanding how people access food and whether they will still be able to do so in the future is important. Do they produce their own food, or do they buy it?  People in remote areas may be several hours away from markets. This is crucial information. 

It is important to distinguish between transitory and chronic situations. Many households every year go through the “hunger season”. They have eaten all the food they produced and are waiting for the next crop. Other households can experience food insecurity all year long, which may be linked to poverty and low incomes. 

Understanding the way people cope tells us a lot. When they are using extreme coping strategies, such as skipping meals we know the situation is severe. Other coping strategies may tell us about food insecurity to come, for example when households sell their tools or consume their seeds, compromising their capacity to plant during the next season. 

For us, hunger is much more than the lack of food, it is this complex interaction between food consumption, access to food, how people cope with the lack of it and their livelihoods.