1. Introduction

Food security is defined as a situation when ‘all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life’ (Food and Agriculture Organization, 2002). This definition brings together food consumption, nutritional status and health, as well as vulnerability and coping mechanisms.

Food security crises are seldom discrete events, they have their roots in chronic vulnerability so while it is vital to address the immediate symptoms of food security crises, it should be recognized that addressing these symptoms seldom tackles the longer-term causes of food insecurity and there is therefore a need for both appropriate emergency interventions and coherent linkages to longer-term food security responses. Our guiding principle should be Disaster Risk Management – in all our programming.

Food insecurity is multi-dimensional and represents an outcome of a range of factors. In order to address it, we need to look at a range of issues.  In the past, food security has often been equated with food aid, especially in emergency responses.  However, food security focuses on people’s ability to obtain food, rather than just on food production or supply.  Food production is necessary but not sufficient for food security. People access their food from many sources: their own production, purchase, the exchange of household production, labor or gifts.

In food security related emergencies, the ultimate goal is to prevent inadequate dietary intake and disease ultimately leading to poor Nutrition Status.  The UNICEF nutrition framework suggests it important to understand and appropriately address the following underlying causes of inadequate dietary intake and disease:

  1. Insufficient access to food (WFP, 2005):
    • Food availability-the amount of food that exists physically in a country or area through all forms of domestic production, commercial imports and food aid. Food availability may be aggregated at the regional, national, district or community level, and is determined by production, trade, stocks and transfers.
    • Food access-the households’ ability to regularly acquire adequate amounts of food available through a combination of their own stock and home production, purchases, barter, gifts, borrowing or food aid.
  1. Inadequate maternal and child care practices:  Refers to the social and caring behaviours within the household and community which influence caring behaviours.  They include appropriate child care (especially optimal infant and young child feeding), hygiene, emotional support, and health behaviours key to good nutrition and health.  Care is also affected by gender and cultural issues.
  2. Poor public health and inadequate health services:  The health environment is critical to the exposure to disease which exacerbates malnutrition (including, clean water supplies, adequate sanitation, appropriate shelter and clothing).  Public health programs and health services (such as, health facilities and immunization services) are key to protecting and supporting nutrition (Black, 2008):

Underpinning the 3 underlying causes outlined above are basic causes of malnutrition that are the result of resources available (human, structural, financial) and the political ideology affecting how these resources are used.

Food and Nutrition security requires all three underlying causes to be addressed. For example, certain households may be food insecure-even though food is available locally-if they are unable to secure sufficient quantity or diversity of food for household use. Similarly, an individual may remain food insecure-even if food is available and accessible-if their body is unable to absorb the nutrients due to poor health or poor preparation.
Understanding food and nutrition security requires an understanding of the broader concept of livelihood security. ‘Livelihood’ refers to ‘a household’s capabilities, assets, and activities required to secure basic needs-food, shelter, health, education and income’ (World Food Programme, 2005). A livelihoods approach analysis helps to identify factors that influence the achievement of food security. A household’s livelihood depends on:

  • the range of assets available to the household
  • the enabling systems-political, economic, social, legal and power structures in society
  • household choices made within in the opportunities and limits of the previous two points.

For more information about livelihoods approaches, see Annex 23.1 Managing risk, improving livelihoods: Program guidelines for conditions of chronic vulnerabilityAnnex 23.2 Household livelihood security assessments: A toolkit for practitioners, and Annex 23.3 The practitioner’s guide to the household economy approach.  

Humanitarian crises often cause food shortages in households; a weak maternal and child care environment; and poor public health services. Combined, these factors can cause inadequate food intake and disease for individuals, ultimately resulting in malnutrition and death.

Thus, in the event of humanitarian crises one needs to examine it effects:

  • Effect on food availability-Quantities and varieties of food available in the area may have been affected and not be sufficient. Food stocks, production, supply systems and markets may not be adequate or functioning optimally.
  • Effect on food access-A household’s own production, income, purchasing power, transfer from other sources and livelihood assets may have been disrupted or eroded. Households may not be able to access sufficient food without losing productive assets, which will have long-term effects on their livelihoods.
  • Effect on food utilisation-People may have access to food, but may not be able to utilise it efficiently and effectively due to several factors (for example, no fuel or containers to cook, illness prevents full absorption). People’s nutritional status may also be affected, as emergencies may change their food consumption and/or public health conditions and care practices.