The basics of food security (and how it’s tied to everything)

Updated Mar 23, 2021
Food: it impacts all parts of our daily life. It isn’t only about feeling full and satisfied, it’s also about feeling connected to community and belonging.

Across cultures, food is a way to bring togetherness to the table and celebrate our shared humanity. On Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, food, water, shelter and rest are foundations for a healthy human. Without these fundamental pieces in place, it’s difficult to advance to thinking about safety, community, our future or our potential. Food security is at the baseline of human need. Without it, we cannot thrive, let alone survive.

A pyramid illustrating Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (from bottom to top): psychological needs, safety needs, love and belonging, esteem, self-actualization.

In this article, you can expect a deep dive into the issues of food security and how it impacts our adult and child health, agriculture, climate change and women’s empowerment. Here you’ll learn why food security is important and what we can do to improve it.
  1. What is food security?
  2. Why is food security important?
  3. How does food insecurity impact Canadians?
  4. How does food insecurity impact developing countries?
  5. How can countries increase food security?
  6. How has COVID-19 impacted food security?
  7. What can I do to help?

1. What is food security?
The Food and Agriculture Organization’s food security definition is when “all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.”

In other words, food security is having consistent, reliable access to safe, nutritious food. Food security is determined by four components:
  • Availability: “Does food exist near me?”
  • Access: “Can I get to food easily?”
  • Utilization: “Will this food contribute to my health and well-being?”
  • Stability: “Will food be available tomorrow, next week, next month?”
When any one of these components are stressed or unmet, it’s considered food insecurity.

A girl in a patterned dress tosses a handful of cowpeas into the air outside her family’s kitchen.
Crops in abundance can mean a steady income and food security for a family. Photo: World Vision

“Zero hunger” remains one of the most rigorous of the Sustainable Development Goals that the United Nations wants to reach by 2030.

You may be wondering, “Can’t we just produce more food?” But issues around food security are complex to say the least.

Technically, we are producing enough food to feed the world’s entire population, yet millions are undernourished. Food security is strongly influenced by intricate social, cultural, political, economic and environmental factors. Food security can be disrupted by many things such as climate change, disempowerment, poverty, natural disasters and conflict.

A boy wearing an elbow patch sweater sits at a dining table, drinking from a blue cup as part of his morning breakfast in Ecuador.
Nicolás, 6, sits at the table to eat breakfast. His meal was part of a food kit distributed by World Vision in Ecuador. Photo: Chris Huber.

2. Why is food security important?

“The average person is still under the aberrant delusion that food should be somebody else's responsibility until I'm ready to eat it.” 

- Joel Salatin, author of Folks, This Ain't Normal: A Farmer's Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People, and a Better World

Access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food is a basic need and should be treated as a human right, with priority given to the most vulnerable.

Apart from basic nutrition, food security is linked to economic stability, long-term health, women’s empowerment and the environment.

Food security impacts our health - especially children’s.

Research reveals that food insecurity can result in ongoing short and long-term health problems. The first 1000 days (from conception to age two) of a child’s life are of critical importance for their healthy growth and development.

A malnourished six-month-old infant from Angola sits on his mother’s lap nibbling on a read-to-use-therapeutic bar.Six-month-old Beto from Angola is severely malnourished. Ongoing intake of RUTF (ready-to-use therapeutic food), and he’ll be on his way to recovery. Photo: Eunice Lopes

For children, severe food insecurity has been linked to chronic health conditions like asthma and depression. A diet lacking in proper substance – enough calories, protein, vitamins and minerals – will impede a child’s growth and development from before they’re born up until adolescence.

A pregnant mother’s malnutrition can lead to a higher risk of low birthweight, infant mortality, preterm delivery and slow cognitive development for her baby. The stress alone of living without secure access to food can have a negative effect on the health of pregnant mothers. This then impacts their infants by affecting milk supply while breastfeeding.

A playful twelve-month-old toddler in Angola stands on his mother’s lap while she smiles at him.Beto, now 12 months old, is a playful, happy child in good health. “When Beto was [malnourished], he didn’t laugh, and he didn’t play. He cried a lot back then. He was so unwell and thin and had lots of diarrhea. He even stopped taking my breastmilk,” shares his mother. “Now he laughs and plays. I don’t worry about him like I used to.” Photo: Susy Sainovski

Because of its problematic effects on health, household food insecurity places a big burden on health care systems.

Adults in food-insecure households have higher rates of developing chronic diseases – mental health issues, arthritis, asthma, diabetes – and are more likely to die early. In fact, food-insecure Canadian adults are likely to die up to nine years sooner than the rest of the population.

Food security depends on agriculture.

You may have heard the phrase “famers feed families”, urging us to “buy local” more often. Why should we do this?

Right now, over 821 million people in the world are hungry. And it’s estimated that an additional 2 billion people will be undernourished by 2050.

A family of two adults and two children stand in their lush garden in Zambia.“The best income we have now is gardening,” says Milton, farmer and father. He trained with World Vision in Zambia in 2011 and has farmed ever since. He is now a model farmer, teaching others in high-yield agriculture. Seida, his wife, says she spends her days at the garden and even cooks meals there. “My husband and I work hard at this [gardening] because we want our children to go to school,” she says. “We want them to reach their full potential and be independent.” Photo: Laura Reinhardt

With education and support, farmers, forestry and fishery workers can provide nutritious food for themselves and their communities. This can be a way for local farmers to generate income while supporting people-centred rural development and safeguarding the environment.

Organic agricultural practices that have access to proper resources and learn best practises are more likely to generate much higher crop yields. This allows farmers to not only secure enough for their own needs, but also to sell in local markets. In turn, this enhances the family’s livelihood, strengthens community resilience and furthers the local economy.

Smiling two-year-old holds green crops in his hands, harvested from his family’s garden in Zambia.
Caston, age 2, proudly displays some fresh leafy greens from his family’s garden.
Photo: Laura Reinhardt

Food security is tied to climate change.

“Innovations that are guided by smallholder farmers, adapted to local circumstances, and sustainable for the economy and environment will be necessary to ensure food security in the future.”

- Bill Gates

Going green doesn’t just limit our household waste production, it also affects the most vulnerable, their food security and their livelihoods. But how?

New evidence in a 2018 report highlights that, aside from a country’s conflict, climate irregularity is a key driving force behind the recent rise in global hunger. It’s also one of the leading causes of severe food crises.

Right now, our soils, freshwater, oceans, forests and biodiversity around the world is experiencing rapid damage. Climate change is putting even more pressure on the ecosystems and resources we depend on, increasing the risk of natural disasters like droughts, floods and even infestations. Many rural women and men can no longer make ends meet on their land, forcing them to migrate to cities in search of opportunity.

Locusts cover the entire sky above a village in Ethiopia.According to FAO’s January 2020 report, Ethiopia is experiencing the worst desert locust invasion in 50 years. Photo: World Vision

The number of climate-related disasters, including extreme heat, droughts, floods and storms, has doubled since the early 1990s, with an average of 213 of these events occurring every year from 1990–2016. These disasters harm agricultural productivity, which means food availability suffers. With this comes a domino effect, causing food prices to skyrocket and income losses that prevent people from being able to afford food.

Climate change – whether brought on by human activities or natural disasters – puts all aspects of food security at risk: the amount of food produced, our access to it, our resilience in the face of disease, how we absorb nutrients and the safety of the food itself.

Food security empowers women, families and future generations.

“When women have an income, [they] dedicate 90% to health, education, to food security, to the children, to the family, or to the community. So, when women have an income, everybody wins.”

- Michelle Bachelet, United Nations Commissioner on Human Rights

Women tend to start with fewer advantages than men, especially when it comes to nutrition, money and resources. This translates to a delayed start to good health and independence in early life and less food security as they build families and communities of their own. But when they are provided with resources and opportunities, women are more likely to direct most of what they have toward helping others.

Four women and a child stand smiling next to their home in Zambia.Zambia is prone to droughts, making it especially vulnerable to food insecurity. Most farming families rely on recycled seeds from the previous harvest to plant crops. Once they received seeds and crop starters, food security was revived. Families who were once rationing one meal a day are now able to eat three meals a day. This female-headed household is one of them. Photo: World Vision

For example, female-headed families are likely to eat more, or have a higher quality diet, than male-headed households with a similar income.

When a crisis hits (famine, war, drought, pandemic), women tend to have self-sacrificial coping strategies that benefit their families. A number of studies have shown that one of the most common mechanisms women adopt in a food shortage is to first reduce their food consumption, and then skip meals in order to ensure larger portions for the men and children.

A woman in a red shirt holds a gardening tool over her shoulder, standing on her plot of land in Zambia.Female-headed households are more vulnerable to food insecurity, but when empowered, are more successful at feeding families overall. Photo: World Vision

An FAO study estimates that closing the gender gap when it comes to access to resources like land, credit, machinery or chemicals could close gaps in crop yields of 20% to 30% and increase domestic agricultural production by 2.5% to 4%. This means up to 100 million fewer people living with hunger.

If we give women the tools and support they need to take the lead on providing food for their households, everyone benefits. Feeding a mother and teaching her how to grow her own food means feeding her family, which is wisdom she can pass on to future generations.

A woman in Zambia tends to the soil in her garden while carrying her baby on her back in a blue sling.Giving women agricultural resources means more financial independence, better health and more food on the table. Photo: World Vision

So, how can we contribute to women’s empowerment through sustainable food security? According to a report from the International Institute for Sustainable Development, we can:

Nurture production practices for diverse nutrition and female labour.
In many areas of agriculture, men and women are responsible for different crops, and this division of labour is often gendered. “Development organizations working on the ground can promote food security and women’s empowerment by promoting the use of female-grown crops,” says Cristina Larrea, Head of the Sustainability Standards for the Economic Law and Policy Program. “This includes new, nutrient-dense crops, such as bananas.”

Promote women’s independence, especially in financial decisions.
Organizations working with farmers can take a gender-transformative approach to improve food security in households by promoting women’s decision-making. Economic empowerment for women ultimately boosts the entire family’s food security, health and wellbeing.

Seek opportunities to address gender bias in agricultural settings.
“Cash crops are typically overseen by men,” Larrea says, which can unintentionally reinforce gender bias. This is just one example of the many seemingly insignificant behaviours and systems that can be addressed to uplift the rights of women. If more time can be invested in learning local gender power dynamics, a smarter way to grow and sustain agriculture can be established.

3. How does food insecurity impact Canadians?
Food insecurity isn’t just a battle we’re fighting abroad. It’s present on Canadian soil and in our local communities, particularly in Northern Canada.

PROOF, a University of Toronto interdisciplinary research program investigating household food insecurity in Canada, provided an in-depth look into the current state of food security. Based on data from Statistics Canada’s 2017-2018 Canadian Community Health Survey, 1 in 8 households are food insecure. This means 4.4 million people in Canada don’t have food security, the largest number recorded since the country first started monitoring. Since the survey doesn’t include vulnerable populations – those living on First Nations reserves, in remote northern areas, or the homeless – this number is likely a gross underestimate.

Programs that provide food for free or make it more accessible and affordable can help in the short-term but have the potential to miss the bigger picture. The deprivation in food-insecure households is not limited to food but also extends to other necessities like housing and prescription medications. This finding suggests the issue is dependent on income issues.

Food insecurity knows no borders, especially during the time of COVID-19. World Vision Canada president talks to Neil Hetherington, CEO of the Daily Bread Food Bank about the sharp increase in families relying on food banks in Toronto.​

About 84% of people affected by food insecurity live in Ontario, Quebec, Alberta, or British Columbia. But there are clear geographic inequalities in these rates, since food insecurity is much more prevalent in Nunavut than any other part of Canada.

Though 57% of households in Nunavut report some level of food insecurity, almost half of these households are dealing with absolute food deprivation. Despite food programs like Nutrition North that provide better access to nutritious, affordable food to remote areas, food security is still a rising problem.

4. How does food insecurity impact developing countries?
Consider the issues standing in the way of food security in Canada, then add the strain of conflict and violence. In several parts of the world, these are the main drivers of hunger and food insecurity. If we weren’t already convinced that efforts to sustain peace would benefit many areas of social justice, we should be now.

A woman in a purple shirt cooks for her family using crops she received from World Vision in her kitchen in Zambia.Upon receiving 40kg of mealie meal, maize seed and cow peas from World Vision, households in Zambia could replenish their gardens and cook more meals. Photo: World Vision​

Accessibility and financial strain compounded by violence, conflict, economic upheaval and poverty is a formula for extreme food insecurity, especially in places like Central African Republic, Yemen, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Syria, Sudan, South Sudan and northern Nigeria. These countries account for two-thirds of the total number of people currently facing extreme food insecurity in the world.

5. How can countries increase food security?
Here are some of the ways we can tackle food insecurity:
  • Give immediate hunger relief. Whenever possible, offer food accessibility to make the next meal something people don’t have to worry about. If countries are unable to gather and distribute nutritious food to its citizens, accepting help from charities is a valuable solution.
  • Offer education and resources for agriculture. As we now know, providing education and resources, particularly for women as heads of households, is an investment that pays dividends in the entire family unit and the communities they belong to.
  • Work toward addressing the root cause. With any chronic issue, temporary fixes are only so effective in the long-term. Eventually, underlying concerns will need to be addressed. But the question is, by who? As we revisit the four pillars – availability, access, utilization and stability – clearly food security is a social justice issue.
Some sources insist that it’s the government’s responsibility to put public policies in place to protect its people. But with gender bias, corruption and violence present at even the highest level of some governments, these issues can continue without accountability. 

Other sources suggest local businesses lowering the price of tools, resources and crops, making it more affordable for the majority of buyers. But this can put farmers and businesses in a vulnerable position. Since food security is tied to poverty, healthcare and other complex issues, there is no simple answer. We do know that the UN has made strides toward ending hunger in their sustainable development goals, but of course, it’s an ongoing battle. Being educated on these issues can certainly help get to the core of the problem and illustrate a better solution.

“It's clear that agriculture, done right, is the best means the world has today to simultaneously tackle food security, poverty and environmental degradation.” 

- Irene Rosenfeld, CEO of Mondelēz International

People in Zambia line up under a blue sky full of clouds beside hundreds of bags of food.A food distribution day in Zambia. The goal was to reach 97,716 households in the South and Western regions. Photo: World Vision

6. How has COVID-19 impacted food security?
In difficult times like war, famine, droughts and pandemics, instinct urges us to hunt, gather and store food. It’s estimated that the number of people suffering from food insecurity could go from 135 million to more than 265 million with the effects of COVID-19. One article claims the coronavirus has pushed the world’s food insecurity to Biblical proportions. "Lockdowns and global economic recession have already decimated [people’s] nest eggs,” says Arif Husain, WFP's Senior Economist. “It only takes one more shock—like COVID-19—to push them over the edge.”

Three World Vision staff members in protective masks and gloves present thousands of care kits ready to be distributed in Ecuadorian communities.World Vision Staff with protective gloves and masks assemble 1,500 care kits containing food and education items for the benefit of whole households. Photo: Chris Huber

What’s even more frightening is the pandemic’s aftershock effects and its threat to children. When parents are infected, children become neglected. As many as 30 million children are especially vulnerable to malaria, malnutrition, lack of protection against diseases. It’s likely that more children will die from residual impacts brought on by COVID-19 than from the virus itself.

A woman in a black baseball cap and protective mask receives a care kit from a World Vision Ecuador staff member at her front door.
Care kits were distributed to sponsored children and their families in Ecuador. Photo: Chris Huber

Those most at risk of food insecurity are in the countries affected by conflict, economic crisis and climate change, according to the fourth Global Report on Food Crises. Yemen, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan, Venezuela, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Nigeria and Haiti are the top 10 most vulnerable.

7. What can I do to help?
World Vision has programs in place with food security at the forefront. These are systems that meet children, families and communities where they’re at by placing your donor dollars where they’re needed most.

A mother in Bangladesh in a white and red niqab sits cradling her infant in her lap.Farida is part of a new mother’s group through World Vision in Bangladesh. “We are changing our food habits [by] bringing variety in our meals, especially for our children,” she says. “Traditionally, we avoid certain foods during pregnancy that we believe are not good for babies. Now we know that pregnant women should eat all kinds of vegetables, fish and meat for nutrition.’’ Photo: World Vision

Gift Catalogue is a one-time contribution that targets livelihood and food security needs. By purchasing a single gift online, items like livestock, medicine and school supplies can support children and families with the resources they need to thrive.

Child Sponsorship is a monthly commitment that empowers children and their families by providing access to basics like food, clean water, education and health care. Because of our community-focused solutions, for every child you help, four more children benefit, too.

World Vision staff member in Bangladesh sits facing a circle of women sharing in a discussion.In addition to food and nutrition, Farida and her fellow mothers are also learning about generating an income and saving money. “They teach us about saving money and how to make a profit from a small business and from gardening,’’ she says. Photo: World Vision

Food. It’s about so much more than satisfying our hunger, it’s also about nurturing long-term well-being. When we have food security, we can work toward preserving the environment, stabilizing our economy, empowering women and girls, mobilizing communities and feeding families.