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Food Poverty and Insecurity: International Food Inequalities

Graham Riches

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Food Poverty and Insecurity: International Food Inequalities, edited by M. Caraher & J. Coveney, 2016, Springer, is a co-edited collection of short essays and case studies exploring within the global food system the effects and challenges of post 2009 austerity on public health nutrition and access to food. The book focuses on a series of case studies from emerging economies represented by SE Asia, India, South Africa and Brazil, and in the rich world from the USA (New York City), France, Australia and the UK.

Content and structure

1The chapters consider several topics: an introductory overview of food poverty and global austerity (Caraher/Coveney); an overview of the global food system and food availability (Randy Stringer); the challenges facing food security in the context of neo-liberal economics in SE Asia (Teuku Tahlil); food security and the right to food in India (Karl-Axel Lindgren); nutrition challenges when faced with epidemiological and health care challenges (South Africa/ Moïse Muzigaba, Thandi Puoane & David Sanders); work in progress, addressing food insecurity in Brazil (Cecilia Rocha); food insecurity and health disparities in New York City (Kimberley Libman); creating linkages between agriculture and food aid in France (M. Duboys de Labarre, A. Carimentrand, C. Crenn, A-H. Delavigne, K.Montagne, C. Parvu, D. Paturel, F. Précigout, I. Techoueyres); food inequality in Australia (Christina Pollard, Andrea Begley & Tim Landrigan); and food banks as ‘successful failures’ in the UK (Daniel Ronson & Martin Caraher).

2The authors are from a range of disciplines including agriculture, economics, food policy, nutrition, public health, planning and geography. In a conventional sense the book should not be considered a cross-national study given the methodological difficulties of comparative policy analysis when considering developments and ideas within and between a geographical region as huge as SE Asia comprising eleven countries; six countries which are either federal or unitary states; and one metropolis (NYC). However this international text offers a rich menu of critical analysis and insights informing the study of food poverty and food policy. This has been accomplished by the editors having ‘on the whole let the authors voices remain untouched’. They allow this might give rise to some inconsistency but ‘trust the reader to interpret within their own frameworks’. This is good advice particularly as this review is written from a social policy perspective with an interest in food charity, the right to food and public policy.

3The two introductory chapters anticipate and frame the themes and issues addressed in the case studies. Austerity is understood as reining in public expenditures or ‘tightening of the belt’ with food poverty considered from three perspectives: the causes and constraints facing individuals, households, communities and policy makers; constrained choices or the ‘lived experiences’ of those on the receiving end of food aid, charitable or public; and the health impacts or outcomes. The working definition of food poverty applied notes it is ‘where constraints are such that it is not possible for individuals or households to consume a nutritionally adequate diet, they could be considered to be in food poverty’.

4In terms of the status of global food security it is recognized there is more than enough food in the world today for everyone. In other words food poverty is for the foreseeable future not a supply side problem or matter of availability but one of food access. As the book makes clear a central issue is that ‘consuming an internationally appropriate diet is an increasing problem’. In other words, whether the food is nutritious or not, we live in a food abundant age. Certainly in aggregate terms all nations in the rich world are food secure (by local production or import). The problem of global food insecurity rooted in poverty and inequality is primarily a matter of food distribution and access to healthy and nutritious food.

5The book’s final chapter is a verbatim transcripted conversation (with minor edits) between Martian Caraher and John Coveney reflecting on the analysis and ideas generated by the case studies. What then can be learned about the causes of food poverty and insecurity and successful strategies for addressing food inequalities? The comments which follow address several of the key issues which are discussed in the final chapter.

Reflections and selected commentary

6In their reflections the two editors first comment on how austerity impacts the rich and the poor differently. Both agree that in order to save the planet we all need to live more parsimoniously, yet the problem in today’s consumer society is that the rich ‘can eat local, can eat sustainable and the poor can’t’. The irony is that to be parsimonious you have to be reasonably well off. The poor have little choice but to eat ‘global goods: highly processed foods’ of which the surplus inevitably is supplied to food banks to feed the hungry. The rich get to choose whilst the poor have to accept what they are given. ‘They are required to be parsimonious’.

7Interestingly there are ways around this problem: farmers’ markets in NYC where pensioners receive premiums for shopping at them; and, in France, the establishment of community supermarkets with links to sustainable food supplies which politically engage people in a more accessible food system. Such initiatives provide choice and enable the poor to access healthy and sustainable food whilst also protecting the livelihoods of food producers. Yet, is the creation of such secondary food markets for the poor a part of the problem or part of the solution to endemic food poverty?

8Secondly, in considering the argument that the food poverty problem is not one of supply but of food distribution, the editors draw attention to those authors who focus on the right to food (India; South Africa; Brazil) as a central approach. The question is raised whether rights based approaches by themselves are sufficient given that poverty and inequality are structural issues. Of course not, but they do provide a critical step forward.

9When the right to food is constitutionally entrenched, as in Brazil, India and South Africa, it provides a framework of national law which, when fully implemented in a coordinated or ‘joined-up’ way, has the capacity to address the structural determinants of food insecurity. In this context, individual rights, when collectively advanced, become social rights if backed by political will. Moreover, with the notable exception of the USA, given that the majority of the world’s nation states have ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (including the Right to Food), the strategies and tools for addressing domestic hunger and food access are readily at hand (see Voluntary Guidelines, UNFAO, 2005).

10In framing national food policy it is vital to recognize that the primary causes of food insecurity are financial constraint and material deprivation. This is recognized by Brazil’s Zero Hunger national campaign in which the Bolsa Familia conditional income assistance programme, paid to mothers, has been essential in the reduction food insecurity. Given that food is inescapably a market commodity, as much as it is a social, cultural and public health good, hungry people need money in their pockets - adequate wages and benefits - to feed themselves and their families. From a social policy perspective, progressive income redistribution needs to be at the centre of ‘joined-up’ food policy focused on food insecurity and poverty reduction.

11Thirdly the editors comment on the role played by food aid and food banks (Australia, Brazil, France, UK, USA) as a response to food poverty, and their rapid post-2009 growth in Australia and the UK. Interestingly Australia’s first food bank was established in Melbourne in 1994 and food banks today now receive government funding. For readers new to this subject, it should be noted that modern day charitable food banking has its origins in the late 1960s in the USA, spreading in the early 1980s to Canada. Food banks date back to the mid-1980s in France and are now institutionalized across most of Europe. Backed by the corporately sponsored Global Foodbanking Network since 2006, they now operate in many high income countries and emerging economies.

12Certainly, as the case studies show, food banks offer emergency food aid but the editors are right when they comment that food banks have now transformed into a system of long term food aid. Yet, there is no evidence of their effectiveness in reducing structural food poverty. They are rather symptoms of eroded welfare states and dysfunctional food systems. As governments look the other way, they act as moral safety valves (see Poppendieck) allowing the wealthy and those with earning power to believe they have done their bit, all the time directing political attention away from addressing structural causes and effective policies. Their description as ‘successful failures’ is apt. Of course there is a moral imperative to feed hungry people but food charity is not the core element of the Right to Food. Its essential focus is on enabling and empowering individuals to feed themselves and their families – to exercise choice and human dignity (see GC 12, 1999; Ziegler et al, 2011)

13Fourthly the absence of and need for national food insecurity data collection in order to inform evidence based policy making is discussed (Australia, Brazil, France and the UK). As the case studies indicate, food banking or food aid in Australia and France receive public funding, yet evidence is lacking as to their effectiveness. The same is true for charitable food banking in the UK. Brazil is an exception. It is a country which collects official food insecurity data and puts it to use monitoring and demonstrating the effectiveness of its Zero Hunger strategy. Certainly if solutions are to be found to food poverty, ‘joined-up’ national food policy requires indicators, benchmarks, outcome, measures, targets and timelines (see VGs, 2005).

14However, there is no guarantee that official national data on food insecurity will translate into comprehensive and coordinated poverty reduction or food security policies. Both Canada and the USA have excellent national food insecurity statistics, yet their governments over the years continue to ignore it. Food charity flourishes. Moreover, the Global Food Security Index (measuring accessibility, affordability, quality and safety) referenced by the SE Asia case study, bears scrutiny. The 2014 Index reports the USA topping the list of 109 countries (EIU, 2014). How can this be when in the same year 14% of all US households (17.4 million households) were reported food insecure (USDA, 2015); and Feeding America, the US national food bank organization, reports 46 million people resorting to food banks (FA, 2014).

15Lastly, among other issues, the case studies are testimony to the critical importance of governance and public accountability. With government ministries and policy silos competing for funds and political advantage, where does - and should - ministerial accountability rest for developing comprehensive national food policy action plans inclusive of addressing poverty reduction and health and nutritional inequalities? Indeed, within federal states there are added layers of constitutional, jurisdictional and bureaucratic complexity, to say nothing of the lack of political will.

16Examples of these issues are to be found in South Africa where national policies and programmes directed at under and over-nutrition are divided between several ministries: Education, Social Development, Finance, Agriculture and Environmental Affairs. In the US, as the NYC case study notes: ’the nutritional dimensions of poverty are addressed separately from the overarching lack of resources that define such living conditions.’ This presents an immense challenge for addressing the structural roots of food insecurity where the lead federal agency is the USDA, which is subject to the powerful Congressional agriculture lobby - supporting farm subsidies and surplus food production which are then delivered to public and charitable food aid/food banks for feeding the poor. Food assistance trumps cash transfers and income security.

17In France food aid is likewise embedded in a complex web of relationships, on the one hand with the agricultural sector (Ministry of Agriculture) or as the case study relates ‘more precisely with the agro-food industry’; and on the other, with social policy given that since 2015 accessing EU food aid now depends on funding from the European Social Fund and no longer the Common Agricultural Programme. Only Brazil’s Zero Hunger policy appears as a prime example of ‘joined-up’ income, food, health and social policy directed at poverty reduction. Undoubtedly the success of Zero Hunger had much to do with its being championed by Lula Da Silva, the President of Brazil between 2003-11 and his Workers Party. Political will counts for a lot.

18As the editors acknowledge, there are chapters still to be written: hearing and learning from the voices of those on the receiving end of food charity, the missing voice of shame experienced worldwide; the troubling matter of food rescue, and the increasingly tax incentivized diversion of ever more food waste from landfills to food banks which solves neither the food waste nor the food poverty issues (in fact merely perpetuates them); and how more regulated economies such as Cuba are more protective of food security. More specialist topics and themes are to be found in the case studies, but as the editors state, they are better trusted to the reader within their own frameworks.

19Both from an anthropological and social policy standpoint, it would be of interest to explore the role of charitable food banking and its place in the overall industrial food supply chain from the perspective of the gift-exchange. How appropriate is it that the surplus foods provided by transnational food companies and supermarket chains, which help stock the shelves of food banks, are regarded as ‘donations’? Would it not be more precise and accurate to describe them as ‘supplies’? ‘Donations’ surely fit well within the concept of corporate social responsibility, but is the primary motivation one of corporate social investment? After all tax incentives and reduced land fill fees feather the bottom line (see R.Titmuss and his seminal work on commercial and voluntary blood donation systems, The Gift Relationship, 1970; Caplan, 2016).

20If still teaching today, I would certainly add Food Poverty and Insecurity: International Food Inequalities to my reading list. It should be required reading for final year undergraduate and graduate students in a range of disciplines. It is a book for those interested in understanding the complexities of the modern food system from the perspective of ‘joined-up’ food policy. This thoughtful and critical text is an original and important contribution to the international food policy literature. Certainly it will be of interest to those teaching, researching or practicing in many fields including public health, social policy, anthropology, planning, geography, agriculture, environmental studies, international studies and human rights.

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CAPLAN P. 2016. “Big society or broken society? Food banks in the UK”. Anthropology Today, Vol 32, Issue 1 February

EIU, 2014. Global Food Security Index, The Economist Intelligence Unit, London

GC (1999) General Comment 12: The Right to Adequate Food. United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

FA, 2014. Bringing hope to 46 million people, Annual Report, Feeding America

POPPENDIECK J. 1998. Sweet Charity. Viking Press

USDA, 2015. Household Food Insecurity in the United States in 2014

VG’s, (2005) Voluntary Guidelines on the Right to Food, Rome: UNFAO

ZIEGLER L. et al. 2011. The Fight for the Right to Food. Lessons Learned. Palgrave Macmillan.

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Electronic reference

Graham Riches, « Food Poverty and Insecurity: International Food Inequalities », Anthropology of food [Online], Book reviews, summer 2016, Online since 20 November 2016, connection on 25 February 2020. URL :

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About the author

Graham Riches

Emeritus Professor of Social Work, University of British Columbia,; Co-editor with Tiina Silvasti of First World Hunger Revisited. Food Charity or the Right to Food? 2014

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Licence Creative Commons
Anthropologie of food est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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