Measuring food (in)security in local contexts: A Hawai’i case study

Hawaiʻi’s popularity as a tourist destination often hides the difficult economic reality faced by many residents

While Scotland moves forward with becoming a Good Food Nation and adopts the recommendations of the Food Security and Supply Taskforce – including the creation of a Food Security Unit – similar efforts to develop an integrated food policy are underway halfway across the world in the US State of *Hawaiʻi.

Transforming Hawaiʻi’s Food Systems Together (THFST) is a state-level initiative ensuring food system policies, strategies and investments remain focused and drive change towards measurable goals.

Food security is a key area of focus for THFST. Hawaiʻi’s popularity as a tourist destination often obscures the difficult economic reality faced by many residents. Hawaiʻi has the highest cost of living in the United States with 44 per cent of households unable to afford basic necessities like housing, healthcare and food. According to one estimate, 48 per cent of Hawaiʻi families experienced food insecurity during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Current food (in)security measurements, however, have significant limitations that inhibit the ability of local authorities to implement policy interventions. Some lack detailed demographic information on who, when and where food (in)security occurs within Hawaiʻi. Others provide one-off snapshots that are not designed to be compared over time.

Methodological inconsistencies, reporting delays, inconsistent and costly data collection, questionable reliability and inaccessibility to the public pose other issues.

Food security is also notoriously difficult to measure because of its multidimensionality: four dimensions - availability, access, utilisation and stability – must be fulfilled simultaneously for food security to exist.

Put simply, no single measurement adequately assesses food (in)security in Hawaiʻi. This makes it difficult for policymakers to know what policy interventions can best address the problem.

My dissertation lays the foundation for the development of a system of multiple metrics and indicators akin to the Economist’s Global Food Security Index. A ‘Hawaiʻi Food Security Index Score’ could quickly and effectively communicate Hawaiʻi’s food (in)security status to a wider audience while simultaneously guiding policy interventions.

Through multiple rounds of interviews and online surveys with local experts, I developed an expert-informed, ranked list of existing metrics for assessing Hawaiʻi’s progress in achieving food security.

The study adopts a more holistic approach that considers all food security dimensions. It also incorporates metrics related to food (in)security for which there may be more robust and localised data, such as enrolment in government nutrition support programmes or consumption of fruits and vegetables. As a result, policymakers can develop a more nuanced understanding of who is experiencing food insecurity and why.

Results showed metrics related to financial access – especially those that highlighted Hawaiʻi’s high cost of living – received the highest ratings. Federal nutrition support programmes were also considered to be important sources of supplementary income. Findings are already informing the way THFST measures food (in)security.

Ensuring transparent and democratic participation is also important for establishing credibility when developing a process for selecting metrics. The approach modelled in this study, which systematically sought to identify and include a wide range of local food security experts, could be adapted to other areas of the food system or other local contexts – perhaps even within Scotland – to ensure metrics are grounded in meaningful stakeholder engagement.

As international recognition of the importance of food systems grows, grassroots efforts to translate global sustainability aspirations like food security to local contexts will increasingly depend on robust monitoring systems. More work is needed to develop these systems in Hawai’i and elsewhere, and particularly in rural areas where local authorities often lack resources and robust datasets.

*The Hawaiian spelling of Hawaii is Hawaiʻi - the ‘okina [‘] is a glottal stop (a short pause) and, depending on the word, is placed between vowels.


Posted by Jason Shon on 10/10/2023

Tags: Food and Drink, Kings Buidings, Rural Policy Centre
Categories: Student and Alumni | Research