Social Worlds in 100 Objects, Themes and Ideas

The tin of soup: a symbol of household food insecurity?

Soup – a food staple symbolising nourishment and security, but studies show food insecurity in our households is rising. Analysis by Dr Jesse Matheson, from the University of Leicester’s Department of Economics, suggests a link with rising fuel prices.

The tin of soup is a comforting sight in winter. We associate it with warmth and nourishment. Convenience and inexpensiveness makes tinned soup a food bank staple. Over the past year the Trussell Trust has reported a tripling in the number of UK households accessing food banks. Many point to the rising cost of household heating, between 8% and 11% so far this year, as an explanation. And with fuel prices expected to continue rising, more UK families may have to choose between warmth and nourishment. But how do we measure this change and who will be impacted?

Household food insecurity is experienced when there is uncertainty regarding, or a disruption in, food intake or eating patterns by at least one member of a household due to financial constraints. For more than a decade in Canada and the US, population surveys have included a series of questions which attempt to measure the food-security status of a household. In the winter of 2000–2001, energy prices in Canada surged and heating costs increased by25% on average.

A recent publication, in Canadian Public Policy, provides compelling evidence that this large and unexpected increase in the cost of heating substantially increased the incidence of food insecurity in Canadian households. Surprisingly, it was not the poorest members of the population who bore the brunt of this expense. Rather, home owners were impacted the most. Very poor households, that were more likely to rent their home, were often protected (in the short run) by “utilities included” rental agreements, and received some relief through the government’s $1.4 billion Relief for Heating Expenses program.

Evidence suggests that women bear a disproportionate burden for concerns about the household diet. A recent study, published in Public Health Nutrition, found that non-married women are 67% more likely than non-married men to be in food insecure households; largely explained by lower incomes and the greater likelihood of children. Perhaps more surprisingly, a household is 47% more likely to be identified as food insecure if the survey respondent is female, regardless of household income, number of children, or a number of other characteristics. This suggests that, on average, women and men in the same household perceive food insecurity differently.

We hope that no household needs to sacrifice a tin of soup for other basic needs. We need to continue researching how price increases impact different households; particularly those on tight budgets. To aid in this, we need to introduce a measure of food insecurity into UK surveys such as the General Household Survey. The relentless rise in fuel prices makes this all the more pressing. An immediate action that everyone can take, at Christmas and year round, is to support their local food bank. Food banks ensure that, when faced with uncertainty about the cost of living, everyone will have access to at least a tin of soup.

Dr Jesse Matheson 


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