Hesperian Health Guides

What is Community Food Security?

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HealthWiki > A Community Guide to Environmental Health > Chapter 12: Community Food Security > What Is Community Food Security?

To understand what problems a community has in getting enough healthy food, look at all the different things that together add up to food security.

Illustration of the below:In a circle, going clock-wise, a woman and child planting seedlings, next to some vegetables, next to people beside sacks of rice and beans, next to a truck full of produce, next to a hand offering a coin for 2 eggs.
Food production. Access to land, seeds, and water; knowledge of how to farm; and finding the right balance between food grown to sell and to eat.
Money, savings, and credit. People need money to buy at least some of their food. Food producers need credit for seed and other needs, especially in years when crops fail.
Good health. People need to be healthy to absorb the nutrients from food. When people are weak from illnesses caused by unsafe water, or from long-term illnesses like malaria or HIV/AIDS, they are less able to produce food for themselves and their communities.
Food transportation and distribution. A way to get foods to market, and people to markets to buy food.
Food storage. Communities often need to store food for 3 or 4 months so it will last though a dry or rainy season, or long times of cold or drought. Food storage must also protect from pests. If rats eat half of your food, you go hungry.

Food contaminated by pesticides, toxic chemicals, germs, or genetically engineered (GE) foods, may be available, but will not provide a safe, healthy diet. Also, without a safe cooking space and enough time and fuel to prepare food, people often eat too many processed foods, which can lead to health problems.

10 seeds

This activity can help people agree on what their community’s most urgent food security problems are, and then help encourage them to make changes that improve community food security.

Time: 2 hours

Materials: 10 seeds for each group, colored pens or markers, large poster paper

  1. Divide into groups of 8 to 10 people. Ask each group to talk about the different things that make up food security, such as food production, food storage, credit, stores and markets that sell healthy food, good land to grow food, and so on. Rural communities that farm, hunt, and fish will have different food security issues than people in cities. Talk about the different things that make up food security where you are. On a piece of large poster paper, write or draw pictures to show the different parts of food security.
  2. Give each group 10 seeds, and ask them to decide which parts of food security are causing problems in their community, putting more seeds where there are the most problems. For example: Is there hunger for some families because food storage is poor? Or because there is no transportation to get food to the market, or no market where you can buy food? Or because of crop pests, poor soil, or lack of water? This will help the groups identify the weakest parts of their food security. Different people in the community will have different problems. Make sure everyone’s problems are heard.
  3. Women in saris look over a chart labelled "Times of greater hunger."
  4. After each group identifies their most urgent food security problems, discuss what local resources may help. If food production is the biggest problem, are there people with knowledge and skills to start home gardens, or to improve farming practices? If food storage is the biggest problem, what ideas could improve it? If there are no markets, is there a way to open a cooperative store to sell healthy food? Or to buy or share a truck to bring food to the community? Every idea counts.
  5. After discussing possible solutions, have each group use another large poster paper to draw or write the solutions that seem most practical. Then divide the 10 seeds among these solutions, putting more seeds near the solutions that seem most possible to carry out.
  6. After each group decides on problems and solutions, come together in a larger group. Using the 10 seeds again, or just voting by raising hands, choose the 1 or 2 most popular solutions. Discuss how to put these solutions into practice. Who needs to be involved, and what resources can the community provide? When can work begin? Set long-term goals, such as “after 2 years, nobody in the community will go hungry.” Also set short-term goals, such as pooling community resources each month to open a store in 3 months, or preparing land for planting by the beginning of the growing season.

Nutrition and food security

Illustration of the below: Child with skinny limbs and visible ribs.
Dry malnutrition:
This child is just skin and bones

When people are sick or malnourished, they are less active and less able to produce food, carry water, and maintain a clean home and a healthy environment. But when healthy foods are affordable, produced in a sustainable way, and available in local markets, people have access to a varied and healthy diet.

Not eating well can weaken the body and cause:

  • severe diarrhea, especially in children.
  • childhood measles to become more dangerous.
  • dangerous pregnancies and births, and babies born too small or with disabilities such as slow mental development.
  • anemia, especially for women.
  • tuberculosis to be more common, and get worse more quickly.
  • diabetes, a disease caused when the body cannot use sugar properly, to be more common.
Illustration of the below: Child with swollen face and legs.
Wet malnutrition:
This child is just skin and bones and water
  • minor problems like colds to be more frequent, and often more severe, leading to pneumonia and bronchitis.
  • people with HIV or AIDS to get sicker more quickly, and their medicines to not work as well.
  • silicosis, asthma, heavy metal poisoning, and other problems caused by contact with toxic chemicals (see also Chapter 20) to be more common and more severe.

Malnourished children grow slowly and learn poorly in school, or are too weak to go to school.

Malnutrition is particularly a problem for young children and must be treated immediately. To learn more about these health problems, and about how good nutrition can prevent them, see a general medical book such as Where There Is No Doctor.

Junk food is not healthy

A boy and girl carrying burgers and fries speak as they leave a fast food restaurant.
We had more and better food when our grandparents were alive. Since they died, nobody in my family grows food anymore.
I know, it’s a shame. But don’t these fries taste great?

When people do not have land to grow food, live in crowded cities, cannot buy healthy foods in the market, or lose the cultural traditions that help them eat healthy food, they often end up eating “junk” food that contains little nutritional value. Often these foods are refined in ways that remove nutrition, are processed with chemicals, are fried in oil, and contain too much sugar or salt. In small amounts, such foods may not be harmful. But when people eat them regularly instead of more nutritious food, they prevent us from getting the nutrition we need.

As people eat more junk foods, they are more likely to gain too much weight and have health problems such as high blood pressure, heart disease, strokes, gallstones, diabetes, and some kinds of cancer. This is why people can be undernourished and overweight at the same time.

When farming changes, eating changes

Everywhere in the world, farmers are being driven off their land. Fields that produced food for local communities now grow crops for export. The growing control by corporations of land, seeds, markets, and the ways that food is distributed not only harms farmers, it harms all of us.

Healthy food is becoming harder and harder to find. In many cities, it is easier to buy “junk” foods, alcohol, and illegal drugs than fresh fruits and vegetables. This has led to big changes in our diets in only a few generations. While our grandparents ate mostly foods prepared with fresh ingredients, people now eat too many refined and processed foods lacking nutrition but containing preservatives, flavorings, colorings, and large amounts of sweeteners (sugars and corn syrup), salt, and fats. So, while many of us eat more food than in the past, the foods we eat are less healthy than ever before.

Changing diets affect Native Americans’ health

Only a few generations ago, Native Americans had a healthy diet of foods they hunted, grew, and collected in the wild. When meat, vegetables, and fruit were scarce, they were still able to collect “survival foods” of roots, seeds, tree bark, and small animals.

About 100 years ago, the US government forced Native people to live on reservations and did not allow them to hunt or fish. Rather than providing them with foods they were used to, the government provided mostly white flour, white sugar, and lard (processed animal fat). Today, many Native Americans still eat these government foods. On many reservations, the only food available is fried junk food. Even the people who do not receive food from the government often eat poorly because they have few other choices.

Because they have been forced to eat a lot of foods that are low in nutrition, and because they do not have the foods their bodies need, many Native Americans are overweight and suffer from heart disease and other health problems related to poor diet. Diabetes is now one of the leading causes of death among Native Americans.

This problem has led some Native Americans to begin recovering their culture and good health by bringing back traditional foods. They are planting maize, beans and squash, gathering wild rice, fishing, and raising buffalo for meat. Richard Iron Cloud, a Native American health worker from the Lakota Nation, says, “Change in cultural traditions, lifestyles, and eating habits caused diabetes to increase. The return to our ancestors’ ways of eating can make disease go away again.”

Plants of different sizes growing next to each other.
Farming traditions, like growing different crops together, can ensure good health and protect the land for future generations.