The Three A’s of Food Security

Famine, drought, disease, crop failure, they might afflict any one of us, but in the developing world and on the margins of urbanised regions, the issue of food security is paramount for survival. There are three main factors to consider when one thinks of food security each of which must be addressed to offer a fourth factor, in which people have adequate nutritious food to eat despite shocks caused by natural, economic, social and policy stresses:

  1. Availability
  2. Access
  3. Action

Availability is achieved when sufficient quantities of food are consistently available for the whole community, whether on a local, regional, or national level. Access to food involves individuals, families and communities have adequate resources to grow their own food, money to buy food, or fitness to work for food. Action, or utilisation, of food refers to the idea that given adequate supplies of food are those supplies are being used properly – to feed people.

Nutritionist Mieke Faber of the Nutritional Intervention Research Unit, at the Medical Research Council, in Cape Town, and colleagues GIS Director Craig Schwabe of the Human Sciences Research Council, in Pretoria, South Africa, and research fellow Scott Drimie of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), in Washington DC, USA, have looked at these factors as they pertain to food security among the poorest households in the country.

The team surveyed almost 500 homes picked at random across five municipalities of Greater Sekhukhune, Limpopo Province, South Africa. These municipalities are among the poorest in the country. Here, seventy-five percent of households are in the low living standard measure category, this means poverty is rife and deprivation common.

They investigated living standards, months of food shortages, household food insecurity and access and found that a potentially key indicator of potential food security issues is dietary diversity.

The team learned that foods were mostly purchased, either from supermarkets in town or small trading stores. This result corresponded with a national survey that showed that most South African households bought the five most widely consumed food items (maize, sugar, tea, whole milk and brown bread) rather than subsisting on agriculture.

The researchers also confirmed an obvious point:

Household income is particularly important for food security as it directly affects household access to food, as was shown by the similar seasonal patterns that were observed for months of inadequate food provision and shortage of money.

However, this statement belies the complexity of the underlying issues. Indeed, the team’s main finding is that the three A’s of food security are underpinned by the finding that households consuming a diet with low diversity experienced more food shortage than households consuming a diet of higher diversity.

This is not to say that by purchasing a more diverse range of foods will improve food security directly, but diversity acts as a risk factor, a proxy measure, to assist in finding the most vulnerable households. Households with a low dietary diversity had fewer assets, such as a refrigerator, than households with a higher dietary diversity, a finding that aligns with earlier research. Not having access to cold storage had already been shown to be a risk factor for stunted growth or being underweight in South African children.

Of course, a survey is just a survey, and the three A’s of food security are entirely meaningless words unless action is taken to address the underlying problems facing poor people in the developing world.

Research Blogging IconMieke Faber, Craig Schwabe, & Scott Drimie (2009). Dietary diversity in relation to other household food security indicators Int. J. Food Safety, Nutrition and Public Health, 2 (1), 1-15