For many, the idea of going hungry is equated with the simplistic notion of “not enough food”, but thinking a little deeper leads to questions about how people can go hungry when there’s food all around us. Food security is the state of having access — both physical and financial — to a dependable, sustainable supply of nutritious food, to enable a healthy lifestyle. For the homeless and impoverished, the barrier to access is a fairly simple financial one, but there are other complex and interconnected factors that together create various situations in which access to food is compromised.
In order to understand food security and the factors by which it can be threatened, it’s useful to first examine the concept of the food “environment”: the manmade conditions in which humans seek out their sustenance, with access interrupted not by famine but by poor planning that makes healthy food hard to find. The issues of food deserts and swamps — the problem of areas in which access to nutritious food is severely limited — are pressing in some urban regions of the United States and Canada. While America is significantly affected by food deserts, in which there is a dearth of nutritious food, Canada is afflicted with the problem of food swamps, which occur when a glut of unhealthy food options have squeezed out more nourishing alternatives.
The Food Justice Movement began in the 1990s to address the social and racial inequalities in terms of access to food. It saw these disparities as intrinsically unjust and attempted to intervene at grassroots level — with practical interventions such as community gardens — all the way up to policy level, fighting against the legislation that makes accessing quality food difficult. Food Justice originated from the Community Food Security Coalition, and continues to draw attention worldwide to building an understanding of the ways in which structural inequalities lead to a disparity in how communities globally consume food. Viewing food insecurity through this intersectional lens allows us to better understand the problem and find more incisive solutions.
In Jane Battersby’s paper Beyond the Food Desert: Finding Ways to Speak About Urban Food Security in South Africa, the author notes that research focusing on food security in the global North, or “developed” countries, “has tended to focus on the politics of the food system and the structural determinants of food insecurity. Southern research on the other hand has tended to take a developmentalist, poverty alleviation approach and has shifted focus from the global and national scale to the household scale”.
It seems that we’ve copied our understanding of food insecurity from that which exists in a rural environment and pasted it directly into the urban context. Battersby expands on this insight with a fascinating comparison between the ways food insecurity functions in urban and rural areas. For example, fluctuations in food security affect both rural and urban households, but in rural areas these fluctuations correlate to seasons in which food grows more or less abundantly, while in urban areas it was in periods of high household expenditure that food insecurity rose, with nutrition sidelined by other expenses. “Urban food insecurity is caused not by availability problems, but by food markets, employment patterns and the spatial configuration of the city,” the author explains, before reiterating that solutions need to reflect this level of complexity.
When we imagine “going hungry” as something that happens only in a dusty, drought-stricken rural area, we imagine hunger as something to be solved in the agricultural sector, or better yet, by the weather. In so doing, we ignore the responsibility that communities have to address the problem hiding in plain sight: that of households and individuals suffering from poor nutrition even though food is within reach. From cities planned to include food sources in dense urban areas to more reliable public transport that facilitates easier and safer grocery shopping excursions, holistic interventions at local and national government level can take the form of measures that enrich numerous aspects of public life in addition to just our diets.