At Action Against Hunger, our food security programming forms a continuum with the work we do in nutrition. While our feeding centres restore individuals suffering from severe and acute malnutrition to health, our food security programs help to prevent future outbreaks.
What is food security?
The definition of food security refers to the availability of food and one’s access to it. A household is considered food secure when its occupants do not live in hunger or fear of starvation. Worldwide, close to one billion people are chronically hungry due to extreme poverty, while up to 2 billion people lack food security intermittently due to varying degrees of poverty (source: FAO, 2009). As defined by the 1996 World Food Summit:
“Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food for a healthy and active life.”
Unfortunately, far too many people struggle to survive without access to even the most basic, minimal sustenance. And this, in turn, results in the kind of malnutrition that can be fatal if left untreated.
Why does food insecurity occur?
Let’s start off what food insecurity is. Food insecurity refers to a lack of access to enough nutritious and healthy food on a day to day basis.
There is no simple explanation for why countries or communities lack food security, but rather the causes are complicated and often political, economic, social, and environmental. Poverty, conflict, corruption, national policies, environmental degradation, barriers to trade, insufficient agricultural development, population growth, low levels of education, social and gender inequality, poor health status, cultural insensitivity, and natural disaster may all contribute to the food security of a country.
More recently, the global increase in the price of grain has pushed many communities into food insecurity, not due to a decrease in global food production, but rather a lack of access to funds required for the purchase of staple foods.
From emergency to self-sufficiency
Sometimes, the work of food security begins immediately after a natural disaster when the infrastructure and food supply of an otherwise healthy community has been destroyed. In these instances, our efforts may include emergency distributions of food, cash, and other essential items to prevent outbreaks of severe malnutrition in the short-term, and to ensure that crops can be replanted and livestock replenished for the future.
Sometimes, food security activities take place as a follow-up to the work of our Therapeutic and Supplementary Feeding Centres. By helping families regain self-sufficiency, we greatly reduce the likelihood that they’ll have to return to our feeding centres again.
Supporting livelihoods, enhancing coping mechanisms
Unlike nutrition, where treatment is guided by standard protocols based on human nutritional requirements, food security must take into account a wide range of factors, such as climate, geography, socio-economic systems, and political structures. As a result, the programs we implement are highly contextualized and must be tailored to meet the unique needs of each community and each crisis. In order to do this, we begin with a comprehensive evaluation of the situation and its underlying causes.
This analysis is conducted by a team with expertise in such areas as agricultural production and natural resource management, anthropology, socio-economics, geography, and veterinary science. In emergency situations, a quick assessment can be completed in as little as three days, but most often it takes between three and four months. The team conducts surveys, administers questionnaires, and meets directly with a cross-section of the effected community, including its leadership.
Community-centered, context specific
By actively involving the local population in both our research and analysis, we identify their existing methods for managing crises, which helps us develop appropriate food security strategies. In some cases, there are good coping mechanisms in place that should be encouraged and reinforced — for example, a communal network of mutual support. In other cases, existing methods may have negative consequences in the future and should be discouraged — like deforestation or the depletion of seed stocks.
In general, these strategies are designed to have a measurable impact within a time-frame that spans a full food cycle — typically between six and twelve months. Just as we begin by conducting an assessment of the needs, our work is not finished until we complete a final impact evaluation. This follow-up research helps the local community continue its efforts to rebuild and it allows us to refine our methods for future crises. Although the strategies vary widely, our food security interventions all share a common goal: to fight hunger by preserving and strengthening livelihoods in a sustainable and contextual manner.