Poverty today is often referred to as a relative concept. Current UK government policy is to base various poverty definitions on those households below 60% of median income. That is judged at the point at which individual or household resources are so far removed from the average level of income they are “excluded from ordinary living patterns, customs and activities.” (Townsend, 1979) While this approach offers a tangible definition for measurement and to inform subsequent policy, critics have highlighted the wider resources beyond income needed to adequately participate in society, and that the stagnation in median incomes masks the reality of levels of poverty in the UK.
In this sense, there have been calls for a measurement of ‘food poverty’ that follows on from the example of fuel poverty, which is now measured and defined by the UK government as being left with a residual income below the official poverty line after fuel costs are accounted for. Internationally, Governments including Canada measure ‘food security’ according to the framework set out by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (see Voices of the Hungry, 2014). This is based on measurements of access to food, changes in the quality of food consumed and reduction of the quantity of food consumed.
While no such official measurement for food poverty or food insecurity exists in the UK, ‘food poverty’ has instead been described according to a broader set of values. Food is not just a material need for subsistence, but carries wider cultural and social significance. Existing definitions have therefore sought to go beyond a ‘bundle of nutrients’ and instead to paint a picture of a wider ability to participate in society. An example of such a definition is from Liz Dowler, who describes food security as ‘the physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet [people’s] dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life, and the confidence that access can be assured in the immediate and long-term future’, alongside the freedom not to have to make trade-offs between immediate poor nutritional status and long-term livelihood sustainability (Dowler, The Future of Household Food Security, 2012).