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Published May 28, 2013, 10:03 AM

Food accessibility

The concept of the availability of food involves issues of production and distribution. The availability of food means there is sufficient food — physical availability at the household, community, state or international levels to provide food for everyone.

By: Daryll E. Ray and Harwood D. Schaffer, Agweek

For much of the United States’ post-colonial agricultural history, export markets were seen as a way for farmers to rid themselves of price-depressing surplus production, whether it be tobacco, cotton, wheat or corn.

But beginning with the export boom of the 1970s and the Universal Declaration on the Eradication of Hunger and Malnutrition issued by the World Food Conference in 1974, that view of the role of exports began to change. Farmers began to wear belt buckles that declared “The American Farmer Feeds the World.”

And the idea of feeding the world became intertwined with U.S. agricultural policy — however the need to get rid of surplus production was always there.

Though the right to food and the right to be free from hunger had been a part of international declarations beginning with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the goal of the 1974 World Food Conference to eradicate hunger and malnutrition within 10 years was not achieved.

By the mid-1980s, the number of hungry and malnourished remained very close to the level it was 10 years earlier. In the meantime, a follow-up to the UDHR, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, was adopted in 1966, though it was not ratified by the required number of nations until 1976.

The ICESCR recognizes “the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food…” (later documents make it clear that the masculine pronouns, notwithstanding, the right to food includes female-headed households as well).

The concept of the availability of food involves issues of production and distribution. The availability of food means there is sufficient food — physical availability at the household, community, state or international levels to provide food for everyone.

For the majority of the hungry in the world, self-production or production within their community is the primary means of ensuring the physical availability of food for them and their families. For others in the world, availability involves the distribution of food and food products to humanitarian or retail outlets within their community.

Accessibility also includes the physical ability to provide the labor needed to farm. For those not engaged in their own food production, accessibility means the ability to earn enough to participate in the retail market for food. Accessibility also can be made available through a form of social security provided by family members for those too old or weak to earn a living or produce their own food. For some, accessibility involves obtaining food from aid agencies.

Adequacy involves issues of quantity, quality and cultural acceptability. Food needs to be available and accessible in a sufficient quantity to alleviate hunger. The quality of the food must be able to meet the appropriate nutritional requirements for full physical and mental development of each individual.

Caloric sufficiency alone may alleviate hunger, but still leave the individual susceptible to malnutrition.

In addition, the food must be free from contamination by either physical, chemical or biological contaminants that would adversely affect those eating it. The food made available by either market or non-market sources must be “acceptable within a given culture.”

Sustainability is measured in terms of long-term availability and accessibility. A humanitarian food relief program may meet immediate needs, but unless it involves changing conditions so that individuals, families, and communities are able either to produce their food or earn enough to ensure economic access to food in the long-term, it is not sustainable.

In addition, sustainable agricultural production practices do not deplete the soil or other natural resources, particularly water and oil.

Aspects of these five key concepts can be found throughout U.S. agricultural policy. One only has to look at programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps), Farmers Markets, Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Conservation Reserve Program and the Food Safety and Inspection Service to see elements of the Right to Food. Even programs such as Social Security, Supplemental Security Income, and Temporary Aid to Needy Families are crucial to the right to food by providing people with financial resources they can use to purchase food.

While agricultural and non-agricultural programs such as those help mitigate (not eliminate) hunger in the US, such programs are often beyond the financial reach of countries where hunger is endemic.

Editor’s Note: Ray is director of the University of Tennessee’s Agricultural Policy Analysis Center. Schaffer is a research assistant professor at APAC.

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