Last Reviewed: September 23, 2019
A seasoned traveler is visiting Guatemala, and after exploring the countryside, he says, “I still haven’t seen a very poor person. Where is the hunger that everyone talks about?”
This tourist is imagining the children with swollen tummies and feet that are so often shown on the news and in aid campaigns. He read that almost half of children under five in Guatemala are chronically malnourished. But he sees children and adults that are seemingly healthy and he’s confused by the apparent contradiction between the data and what he is seeing.
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Malnutrition and food insecurity in many parts of the world, including Guatemala, my home country, are profound, complex, and often chronic. And, to the untrained eye, they are invisible.
Children who are chronically malnourished often appear healthy and proportional, until you try to guess their age. Boys and girls who are nine years old appear to be four years old and they may even appear chubby.
Unfortunately, seeing children who are running and playing, though their growth may be stunted, does not shake us, or our governments, into action. Everything seems fine. But it’s not.
In fact, food insecurity is the biggest roadblock for development in many countries around the world and it remains to this day (despite the rarity of headline news coverage anymore) an enormous humanitarian crisis.
The aim of this article is to help bring food security back into the spotlight by discussing what it is, how it develops, its consequences, and what you can do to help create food security for everyone.
What is Food Security?
The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) uses the following definitions of food security and food insecurity:
Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food which meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.
Food insecurity exists when people do not have adequate physical, social, or economic access to food as defined above.
Basically, food security means you and your family have enough food to eat every day. And food insecurity means you sometimes go hungry.
Of course, when I say “hungry”, here, I don’t mean the feeling everyone has right before a meal. I mean hunger in the true sense of the word: not having access to the calories and nutrients you need on a regular basis.
Food security and nutrition are so closely linked that some organizations choose to use the term Food and Nutrition Security (FNS) instead.
Why is Food Security Important?
Food insecurity is a huge problem in the US and worldwide. And, regardless of whether you live in a food-insecure home or not, it affects all of us.
In 2016, in the US alone, about 11.5% of all adults and 17.5% of all children lived in food-insecure households. That is 28.3 million adults and 12.9 million children.
On a global level, the statistics are even more shocking. The 2018 State of Food Security Report estimates that over 820 million people are undernourished — the result of consistent food insecurity and regular hunger. This number means that a full 10.9% of the global population is not getting enough food, in quantity or quality.
Worryingly, these figures are up for the second year in a row, after having dropped every year for a full decade prior to 2015. Not only is food security a serious global problem, it’s a serious, growing global problem, whose importance is continually underestimated.
The importance of the food insecurity experienced by these 820 million people (and counting) is wrapped up in the wide range of domino-like effects that food insecurity has in their personal lives, their communities, and the entire world.
Undernutrition and its Health Consequences
As I mentioned above, the most direct consequences of food insecurity are hunger and undernutrition. UNICEF defines undernutrition as “the outcome of insufficient food intake and repeated infectious diseases. It includes being:
- underweight for one’s age (underweight)
- too short for one’s age (stunted)
- dangerously thin for one’s height (wasted)
- deficient in vitamins and minerals (micronutrient malnutrished)
Chronic undernutrition experienced in the first 1,000 days of life (from conception to your second birthday) has severe consequences for your physical and mental development and the effects cannot be cured.
The reasons why the risk of chronic illnesses increases after being undernourished as a young child are very complex. One of the most important reasons is related to changes in hormone levels during important growth periods.
For example, many studies have shown that chronically undernourished children experience changes in the function of a hormone called the growth hormone insulin-like growth factor (IGF). In the short-term, this results in stunting. Long-term, it alters organ development and metabolism.
As life goes on, these same children grow up into adults that (often) continue to lack access to high quality, diverse foods. This means that their compromised organs are more likely to go into distress, leading to chronic diseases.
Undernutrition and its Economic Consequences
Food insecurity keeps people from reaching their full economic and social potential.
Malnourished children do poorly in school or are not able to attend school at all. Without education, opportunities for undernourished children’s futures are limited, making it more difficult for them to have access to a steady income as adults.
For adults, food insecurity limits their employment and entrepreneurial options.
Combined, these effects mean that food insecurity poses a serious threat to economic productivity. The FAO estimates that undernutrition and micronutrient deficiencies cost the global economy up to $2.1 trillion per year.
Additionally, in both short-term and long-term food insecurity, peoples’ health declines and families depend on social security health nets (if they exist), to stabilize their health. This adds extra costs to the economy to maintain the safety nets and cover the extra medical costs.
If governments and international organizations chose to invest in food security, it would undoubtedly pay off, economically speaking, relatively quickly.
In fact, the US 2013 State of Food and Agriculture Report stated that investing $1.2 billion annually in a series of proven strategies (like micronutrient supplements and biofortification of staple crops) would result in a benefit of $15.3 billion for the economy. This is a benefit-to-cost ratio of almost 13:1. Not to mention it would also result in better health, fewer deaths, and increased income for the American people.
What Plays a Role in Creating Food Security?
The four main dimensions, or elements, that interact to create food security are:
- the physical availability of food
- economic and physical access to food
- food utilization
- stability of the previous three dimensions over time
Let’s briefly discuss each of these.
Physical Availability of Food
This dimension has to do with the “supply side” of food production and trade, including economics on a national and regional level.
To determine the physical availability of food, you have to consider national food production, food imports, and food distribution systems. To illustrate this point, we can look at Mexican cuisine as an example.
Mexico is a country where corn, also known as “maize”, is the most important staple food. One cookbook, dedicated to the rich ancestral history of maize in Mexico, has over sixty recipes for maize-based foods. Usually, several corn-based foods are eaten in one day.
It is important to note that corn isn’t only important for daily nutrition for the Mexican people. It is also essential to their national identity and cultural pride.
In the southern region of Mexico (as well as in Guatemala, Belize, and parts of Honduras) those of Mayan descent refer to themselves as “people of maize” (an allusion to an important ancestral text).
The nutritional and cultural importance of corn for the Mexican people means that the economic demand for corn is extremely high. In fact, demand is so high that, though Mexico produces corn, it also has to import corn from other countries to ensure that the population has a steady supply. If the Mexican government stopped importing corn, much of the population would suddenly experience food insecurity.
Economic and Physical Access to Food
For you to put food on your plate, you, personally (not just your government or your country) need to have access to it.
Two elements come into play when we talk about whether you have access to food or not. First is food availability and convenience. Second is food affordability.
Food accessibility can mean that you produce it in your vegetable garden or cornfield, you buy it at the supermarket, or you are able to trade for it. Once it is easy to access, you need to be able to afford the variety of food you need to have balanced nutrition.
Food utilization focuses on how your body makes the most of the nutrients that are delivered in the food you eat. In addition to providing you with enough energy, carbohydrates, protein, fat, vitamins, and minerals, your food can’t have any unwanted elements tagging along. “Unwanted elements” could include bacteria, fungus, or toxins that can make you ill.
More specifically, this means that food preparation, hygiene, access to clean water, distribution of food within the household, and food diversity all come into play with food utilization.
Stability of the Other Three Dimensions Over Time
Finally, to be truly food secure, there can be no doubt in your mind about whether you will have access to the correct variety of food in a week or whether you will be able to afford all the food you need to feed your family next month.
Natural disasters like floods and earthquakes, war, migration, and job insecurity can all affect the stability of the other three dimensions.
How is Food Security Measured?
There are several ways to measure food security but one of the most widely-utilized methods was developed by the FAO. The FAO measures food insecurity indirectly by measuring hunger on a population level. This helps governments and organizations make timely decisions about how to combat food insecurity.
FAO Definition of Hunger
This is how the FAO measures hunger:
The measure for hunger compiled by FAO, defined as undernourishment, refers to the proportion of the population whose dietary energy consumption is less than a pre-determined threshold. This threshold is country-specific and is measured in terms of the number of kilocalories required [for] sedentary or light activities. The undernourished are also referred to as suffering from food deprivation.
The severity of undernourishment indicates, for the food-deprived, the extent to which dietary energy consumption falls below the […] threshold.
Integrated Food Security Classification (IPC)
Another way the FAO measures food insecurity is by using a system called the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC). The IPC takes into account:
- crude mortality rate (number of deaths in a specific area per month or per year)
- prevalence of malnutrition (percent of the population with malnutrition)
- food access and availability (reports from communities about whether food is available and affordable)
- dietary diversity (whether communities are able to consume foods from all food groups)
- water access and availability (availability of reliable plumbing, wells, nearby water sources, etc.)
- coping strategies (access to a seed bank, irrigation, or marketplace to combat famine)
- livelihood assets (does a community depend on a single source of income, like farming, or can they make a living with other skills?)
After evaluating these elements, the FAO classifies regions and countries as follows:
As you know, the best strategy for addressing any emergency situation is prevention. The FAO has also developed methods to determine whether an area is at risk of food insecurity.
To analyze the risk of an area becoming food insecure, organizations like the FAO can look at:
- the vulnerability of a community to an event that can cause food insecurity (like a war or natural disaster)
- the existing resources a community has to cope with such an event
Let’s put ourselves into an example.
Imagine being in a well-to-do family living on the coast of Florida. Most of the year, the weather is beautiful. You usually have no trouble walking or taking a short drive to get your groceries at an affordable price. You also have a small garden where you produce most of the vegetables you need.
But then, hurricane season comes around and your local government calls on you to evacuate. Luckily, you can go to your sister’s home, inland, until the storm passes.
In this case, you are vulnerable to a natural disaster. But since you are able to cope with it by staying with family, you aren’t vulnerable to food insecurity. And, even if your vegetable garden is ruined, you have the financial means to buy your vegetables instead.
In other words, the event, however scary it is, will not cause you to go hungry.
On the other hand, if you don’t have a place to go and depend on the local grocery store (which shut down) and the produce from your vegetable garden (which was destroyed) to feed your family you would be vulnerable to food insecurity. This is exactly what happened to many people during Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.
If a region’s level of vulnerability is detected in time, the government and non-profits can act to help protect homes and communities from damage. Additionally, organizations can put programs into place to increase their ability to cope with future disasters. Job security, temporary shelters, and food assistance programs can all be helpful here.
Where is Food Security a Problem?
The countries that experience most undernutrition in the world are developing nations. Notably, the most vulnerable regions are eastern, central and sub-Saharan Africa, the Caribbean, and central, southern, and southeast Asia.
We have, however, seen some progress on a global scale. We don’t have much data on how wasting (severe thinness) has changed over the past five years. But we do have data for stunting.
If you look at the graph, from 2012 to 2017 there has been a full 2% decrease in stunting, from 24.3% to 22.2%. The goal is to reach 14.7% by 2025 and 12.1% by 2030.
It might seem confusing that stunting has decreased but overall food insecurity has increased. The food insecurity index is a more immediate measurement of hunger and nutrition, since it asks households whether they are currently worried about having enough food in quality, quantity, and diversity. A questionnaire may also ask if they are worried it will be a problem in the near future.
Stunting, on the other hand, is the result of long-term undernourishment. Since there has been an increase in undernourishment, sustained over two years, it is not unlikely we will also see an increase in stunting in the next few years as the undernourishment becomes chronic and affects child growth. But it hasn’t shown up in the data just yet.
When we talk about food insecurity, developing countries are usually the first to come to mind. Food security is, however, also an issue in countries like the US, as well.
You might have heard of the concept of food deserts, which aren’t uncommon in many parts of the United States, Canada, and Europe. Food deserts are areas with poor access to healthy, affordable food. Moreover, they result in disadvantages in health and nutrition outcomes and a greater risk of chronic diseases.
Elements like distance to supermarkets, cost of food in the supermarkets (relative to income), and the variety of healthy, culturally-appropriate foods available in markets and supermarkets are all factors that are essential to food security.
In a review of studies published by the CDC, developed countries like the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, all have communities vulnerable to becoming food desserts (see map below for the US data). In many cases, communities with high populations of minorities are most vulnerable.
The problem of food deserts in the US gained significant attention with former First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move Initiative. As part of this program, the USDA collected data on low-income communities with low access to food and to vehicles. In the image below, you can see the result of the 2009 data:
The areas in dark brown are the counties that are most vulnerable to low food access. You can see that the areas in red and orange also have areas with less-than-ideal access to food.
How Can We Achieve Food Security?
In all this talk about food security and nutrition, we mustn’t reduce people, cultures, or countries to their food insecurity data. Above all, every individual affected by food insecurity or undernutrition are people with dreams and emotions.
They love their communities, and they are proud to be who they are, despite incessant discrimination and more everyday challenges than many will ever face. They are persistent fighters making a better life for themselves. Their lives are infinitely more complex than shown on postcards.
Most organizations, individuals, and agencies who are working to improve food security strongly believe that the best way to fight food insecurity is to focus on building on the assets of villages, cities, and countries have to offer, rather than focusing solely on needs. Often, needs-based approaches lead organizations to ignore a country’s assets. Instead, these approaches could force “progress” in ways that don’t reflect the country’s real cultural values.
When organizations do not take communities’ strengths, goals, and visions of development into account, the changes, however positive, will be unsustainable.
What Can You Do to Help Everyone Have Food Security?
Are you reading this article wondering how you can help in the fight against food insecurity?
Start in your own community!
- Volunteer! Find a community farm, a homeless shelter, a food bank or local NGO that works towards fighting hunger in your town or community and get involved.
- Donate! If you don’t have time to volunteer, consider donating money to a local organization doing great work.
- Reduce waste! If you have leftover food, consider donating it.
- Host a food drive! Identify an organization that can distribute the food to people in need or create one yourself.
- Speak up! Tell your local leaders that you care about hunger in your community.
- Join the fight professionally! Choose a career path that will allow you to apply your skills to fight hunger.
- Share your knowledge! Promote awareness among family and friends. You can start by sharing this article!
In addition to tackling food insecurity in your backyard, you can also find a global organization that does essential work in fighting hunger worldwide. You can donate to or volunteer with effective, global organizations, as well!
Here are a few of my favorite global organizations working to create worldwide food security:
- Action Against Hunger
- Groundswell International
- Heifer Project International
- Biodiversity International
- Community Alliance with Family Farmers
- Food First
- Green Shoots Foundation
- Catholic Relief Services
- Sustainable Harvest
Disclosure – This post contains affiliate links. Click here for details.
Do you want to learn more about food security and nutrition and what you can do about it? Here are some recommended reads!
Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity by Lester R. Brown
The Evolving Sphere of Food Security by Rosamond L. Naylor
Food Matters: Food Security and the Future of Food by Paul Teng and Miranda Foo
Food Security in the Developing World by John Michael Ashley
Food Security (Dimensions of Security) by Bryan L. McDonald
Take Home Message
Food insecurity is a long-standing issue. It continues to be at the forefront of problems that are preventing countries and communities from reaching their full potential. A lack of food security (access to adequate nutrition and safe food) leads to health, social, and economic consequences on individual, household, community, and national levels. But the reality is, even if we consider ourselves food secure, food insecurity still affects our neighbors, nationally and internationally. Promoting food security is a shared responsibility.
You can help in the fight against global food insecurity by contributing your skills, time, or resources towards effective efforts that are fighting against undernutrition.