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14.2.1: Introduction to Food Access, Food Security, and Food-Insecure Conditions

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    Food access is a variable condition of human consumers, and it affects all of us each and every day. If you have ever traveled through an isolated area of the country or the world and encountered difficulty in encountering food that is customary or nutritious to eat, or within reach of your travel budget, you have an inkling of what it means to have issues with food access. For those with little capacity for food self-provisioning from farms or gardens, food access is determined by factors influencing the spatial accessibility, affordability, and quality of food sellers. The consistent dependability of adequate food access helps to enable food security whereby a person’s dietary needs and food preferences are met at levels needed to main a healthy and active life. Famines are conditions of extreme food shortage defined by specific characteristics (see below). Food-insecure conditions, such as acute and chronic hunger, are important conditions that affect many people both in the United States and in other countries.


    Food Access:

    Determined among consumers by the spatial accessibility and affordability of food retailers---specifically such factors as travel time to shopping, availability of healthy foods, and food prices---relative to the access to transportation and socioeconomic resources of food buyers. You examined both of these in the Module 3 nutrition activity that used the United States Atlas of Food Access. Some people and places, especially those with low-income, may face greater barriers in accessing healthy and affordable food retailers, which may negatively affect diet and food security. Food access among growers of food, whether full-time farmers or part-time farmers (including many smallholders), is influenced through the ability of e.g. farmers to produce and store enough food to complement purchased food or food themselves entirely, referred to as self-provisioning capacity.

    Food Security:

    “when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life. Commonly, the concept of food security is defined as including both physical and economic access to food that meets people's dietary needs as well as their food preferences” (World Health Organization)

    Components of food security: Some food programs, such as the Food and Nutrition Technical Assistance (FANTA) unit of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), have found it helpful to analyze food security as composed of:

    • food availability (production and/or markets that deliver sufficient amounts of food)
    • food access (see above definition)
    • food utilization: the ability to exercise cultural food preferences and the effective use of food within households and communities to guarantee equitable nutrition.


    Famine is generally understood as acute (versus chronic) food shortages at crisis levels across a wide area, with disastrous health and mortality outcomes. While there are various formal definitions of famine, many experts say that there must be evidence of three specific outcomes before a famine can be declared:

    1. At least 20 percent of households face extreme food shortages with limited ability to cope; Note the explicit linkage to reduced adaptive capacity of famine victims (see module 11.1)
    2. The prevalence of acute malnutrition across the famine region, in a generalized way, must exceed 30 percent.
    3. Death rates from hunger must exceed 2 deaths per 10,000 people per day.

    (World Food Program definition, from Zero Hunger).

    Food-insecure conditions: acute vs. chronic hunger and malnutrition:

    The definitions above imply concepts of acute and chronic that are broadly analagous to their definitions in the medical field. An acute food shortage is one that occurs suddenly, while chronic conditions go on month after month or year after year. Most climate and price shocks provoke acute impacts or crises; while chronic malnutrition of vulnerable or poor populations within countries can go on year after year, provoking long-term negative health and livelihood impacts. Both are considered failures of food systems. Acute food insecurity is rare in wealthier countries, but chronic under-nutrition and poor nutrition can be common especially among the poor, and is one of the current crises faced in the United States.


    You may already be familiar with this term and absorbed some of the characteristics of smallholder farmers through our focus on the food systems that these farmers occupy around the world (Module 10.1). In formal terms, smallholders are food producers whose households typically own less than 2-3 hectares (approximately 7 acres) of farmland. Demographically, smallholders number approximately 2.0-2.5 billion people worldwide, which makes them a major stakeholder group and "target population" for global food and agricultural policy. The socioeconomic characteristics of smallholders vary widely. Some smallholders, including ones in the U.S. and Europe, may include locally well-to-do “hobby farmers” while the majority of smallholders are relatively poor, both in these countries and in the far more numerous populations of smallholders in countries such as China, India, and Brazil, and well as many other less developed and developing nations. The food access of smallholders typically combines some self-provisioning along with significant reliance on food acquisitions at stores and markets for staple foods such as grains, noodles, sugar, and oils.

    This page titled 14.2.1: Introduction to Food Access, Food Security, and Food-Insecure Conditions is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Heather Karsten & Steven Vanek (John A. Dutton: e-Education Institute) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.