Food Security vs Food Insecurity

What is Food Insecurity?

Do you know what’s for dinner tonight? When will you be having your next meal? Are you healthy enough for your body to process this meal?

If you answered yes to any of the questions above, you’re one of the fortunate people who are food-secure.

In this post, we’ll explore the meaning of food security versus food insecurity and begin to understand how we at Food For Life Global help fight food insecurity.

Food Security vs Food Insecurity

Food security is the confidence of knowing where and when your next meal will be and knowing that if you’re hungry, you’ll soon be able to feed yourself. The World Food Summit of 1996 defined food security as “when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life”.

Man Praying

On the other hand, food insecurity is the inability to know where and when you’ll next be able to eat. Merriam Webster defines food insecurity as being “unable to consistently access or afford adequate food”

As of 2018, the African continent was home to nearly half of the food-insecure people in the world at around 65 million individuals.

What are the four levels of food security?

There are four levels of food security that help determine the severity of the food insecurity someone or a group of individuals might be experiencing.

Level 1: Food Secure.

At this level, you have the means to purchase food whenever you feel the need. You also have easy access to food and don’t need to worry about where or when your next meal will happen.

Fruits and vegetables on top of table

Level 2: Marginal Food Insecurity.

Those who fall into level two may worry about money being tight and deciding between, for example, paying rent or having a meal. Those in this level rarely seek food bank assistance for help and will often change their spending habits in order to be able to afford the necessities of life such as food and shelter.

Level 3: Moderate Food Insecurity

At level 3, purchasing food is a real concern, particularly right before the next paycheck rolls around. Those in level 3 will likely begin decreasing the quality of the food they buy in order to ensure that they do not go hungry. They’re also more likely to start seeking assistance to address their food insecurity issue.

Level 4: Severe Food Insecurity

Those who fall into this level will purposely miss meals because they do not have the resources to eat when they are hungry. They will often rely on food banks for the majority of their meals.

Causes & Effects of Food Insecurity


Poor individuals do not have the means to create or purchase high-quality meals. Poor farmers could have tiny farms, employ inefficient farming practices, and/or lack the financial means to purchase fertilizers and labor-saving technology, all of which restrict food output. They frequently struggle to produce enough food for families, let alone earn money by selling surplus produce. Poor farmers may be moved onto less productive land if they lack economic means and political power, thus causing more environmental degradation. Poverty reduction is crucial to ensuring that everyone has enough food.


As productive people get ill or die as a result of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, food production has decreased in many nations. Food use and availability will improve when health concerns are addressed. A hungry woman will give birth to an underweight kid, who will have stunted growth, frequent illnesses, and learning problems in the future. In children, contaminated food and drink can cause disease, nutritional loss, and even death.


Massive volumes of water are required for food production. Having enough water is closely tied to producing enough food. Irrigation may provide a consistent and appropriate supply of water, increasing agricultural production.

Food security may be dependent on food imports from nations with plenty of water when water is short. This might be a better use of a limited resource.

red and yellow vegetables in a white box


Droughts, floods, cyclones, and pests may swiftly destroy enormous amounts of food while they grow or are stored for later use. Such environmental hazards might potentially harm seeds. As farmers leave to safety or take part in the fighting, conflict can limit or damage food in produce or storage. Previously productive terrain may be polluted with explosives debris and require clearing before being usable for food production again. Soldiers may devour or destroy stored food, seeds, and breeding cattle, resulting in long-term food shortages. Following wars, government funding should prioritize food security.


Food security has effects on the population as well. Food demand rises as the population grows. Because the majority of fertile land is already in use, there is pressure to make it more productive. Impoverished harvests and rising prices have forced numerous poor farmers to seek jobs in cities. Food production is being pushed ever further away from people as cities expand across productive land. This increased the price of all operations related to food production and transportation, reducing food security for the poor in towns.


Poor countries can manufacture basic commodities at a lower cost than affluent countries, but trade obstacles create difficulties for them to participate in export markets. Food poverty has detrimental consequences on children’s physical and cognitive development. In Somalia, for instance, 20% of kids die before they reach five years old. Women’s nutritional state is also a key issue.

Gender Roles

Women have an important role in obtaining food security in societies. As food suppliers, processors, merchants, and income earners, women play a critical role in supplying meals and nourishment for their families. Women’s inferior social and economic position, on the other hand, restricts their right to schooling, employment, property ownership, decision-making, and financing, as well as their potential to enhance their food access and usage.

Women’s understanding of nutrition, food safety, and sickness prevention can all help them use food more effectively. As women engage in fertilizer application and improved seeds, labor-saving technologies, irrigation, and land maintenance, their participation in decision-making and access to the land and financing will increase food security.

What are the elements of food security?

It’s generally accepted that there are four components of food security: availability, access, utilization, and stability.

Grapes, Apple and Strawberry for sale


Some people may reside in areas labeled “food deserts” and therefore simply don’t have access to food which means that they lack availability and would fall into the category of food insecure.


This means that a person has the resources necessary to purchase or acquire food. For example, someone may not have enough money to purchase food and pay rent, so they have to decide which one of these basic needs is more vital to survival at the time. Access can also be defined as reliable transportation to and from the store or a place to get food.


It refers to a person’s physical ability to gain energy from food through natural bodily functions. For example, someone may have a disease that does not allow their body to properly profit from the nutrients they acquire through meals.


It refers to the idea that the three aforementioned conditions need to be continuous and not sporadic in order for an individual to be food secure. If one year a crop that is a main source of food in a local area is abundant, but has not been in the past years and still may not be in the future, the conditions are not stable enough for the area to be considered food-secure.

Together, these elements mean that a person has the resources necessary to survive and thrive.

What are the main causes of Food Insecurity?

While an entire thesis could be written on the causes of food insecurity, there are a few main issues that we can look at. A history of persistent problems like poverty, disease, human rights violations, climate change, and food shortage in combination with ever-soaring food prices has contributed significantly to food insecurity in Africa and all over the world.

Man sitting on the street beside with empty can and umbrella

These issues are evidently major problems themselves and by addressing these problems we can address the root problems of food insecurity.

What are the impacts of Food Insecurity?

Food insecurity is known to have different effects in developing and developed countries. Within developing countries, the World Health Organization estimates that about 60% of childhood deaths are associated with food insecurity (World Health Organization. “Nutrition Research: Pursuing Sustainable Solutions.”). This lack of access to proper nutrition leaves children vulnerable to diseases such as malaria and diarrhea, which is especially dangerous when combined with a lack of access to clean water, further increasing the risk of death.

Another recently discovered impact of food insecurity is domestic violence. According to the Journal of Global Health, 35% of women worldwide have experienced some sort of domestic violence because of food insecurity.

In looking specifically at a survey conducted in Zimbabwe, over half of the female population stated that they had experienced violence that was expected to be a result of food insecurity.

What’s the distinction between Hunger and Food Insecurity?

While hunger and food security are linked, they are not quite the same. Indeed, the USDA recently eliminated references to hunger from its food security measures, claiming the necessity for independent and more extensive research on the topic. The following are some important distinctions between the two:

Food security is first and foremost a socioeconomic (financial and cultural) issue, whereas hunger is a physiological one (physical). Food security studies seek to quantify the dependable availability of food by asking questions such as shopping anxiety, budgeting for nutritious food, and running low on food. On the other side, hunger is a bodily experience. We may say that starvation is one of the possible consequences of food insecurity, yet hunger is not usually the outcome of food insecurity.

bell peppers and zucchinis in a black tray

Second, we track food security and poverty at the household and individual levels. Some members of a household suffering from food poverty may go hungry while others do not. Families in food-insecure households, for example, could have enough meals to feed their kids but are hungry themselves.

How can we measure food security and food insecurity?

So, with all of this discussion about what it is, how can we assess something like food insecurity? The USDA’s yearly measures are used by Food for Life Global and many other hunger-relief organizations. Every year, increasing numbers of families complete a brief survey that is incorporated into the census.

Only ten questions are asked, with an extra 8 questionnaires for families with kids. The questions range from the least serious (“We feared that our food might run out before we could have money to buy more”) to the most serious (“Did you or other grownups in your family ever spend a day without eating because there wasn’t enough cash to pay in the previous 12 months?”).

The USDA divides households into four categories based on their food security: high food security, marginal food security, poor food security, and extremely low food security. If three or more indications of food insecurity are reported by a household, it is deemed to have low food security. Households with three symptoms of food insecurity AND some level of eating lesser than they should / missing meals are regarded to have very low food security.

How do you fight Food Insecurity?

Fruits and vegtables on top of plate

When we talk about the causes of food insecurity we need to remember that there is no one cause nor is there one effect. The whole cycle is a negative feedback loop, which essentially means that A leads to B which in turn leads to A.

For example, think about poverty. Lack of funds leads to food insecurity (through an inability to purchase food) which then leads to poverty (perhaps being unable to work due to starvation). Breaking the loop is incredibly difficult, and it’s not typically a loop that can be broken without outside help, such as that provided by Food For Life Global.

The United Nations suggests focusing on regional development and cooperating across borders. However, this does not fight the dire food insecurity and starvation issues that are in need of immediate attention, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa.

One of the best things that you can do to help is to donate. Just $10 will feed 20 children and will help them to break out of the negative feedback loop. You can also volunteer your time. 

Together, we can help end food insecurity and break the cycle of hunger and poverty.


Together, we can help end poverty.

Donate Now

Support the important work of Food for Life Global to serve its international network of over 200 affiliates in 60 countries.
Food for Life Global is a 501(c) (3) charitable organization, EIN 36-4887167. All donations are deemed tax-deductible absent any limitations on deductibility applicable to a particular taxpayer. No goods or services were provided in exchange for your contribution.

Food For Life Global’s primary mission is to bring about peace and prosperity in the world through the liberal distribution of pure plant-based meals prepared with loving intention.

Paul Turner

Paul Turner

Paul Turner co-founded Food for Life Global in 1995. He is a former monk, a veteran of the World Bank, entrepreneur, holistic life coach, vegan chef, and author of 6 books, including, FOOD YOGA, 7 maxims for soul happiness.

MR. Turner has traveled to 72 countries over the last 35 years helping to establish Food for Life projects, train volunteers, and document their success.

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