Health and Nutrition Fund

What Is Food Security?

Food security is a measure of the availability of quality food and an individual’s ability to access it. Conversely, food insecurity is defined as the disruption of food intake or eating patterns because of lack of money and other resources. Food security isn’t just about having enough food to eat. It extends to the nutritional quality of the food and the effect the food has on the person’s health, as well as cultural food preferences and dietary requirements.

According to the United Nations' Committee on World Food Security, a person is only food secure when he or she has regular access to enough safe and nutritious food to remain healthy and lead an active life.

This is based on the food security definition established by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in its report, The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2001.

"Food security [is] a situation that exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life."1

Why Is Food Security Important?

Food security is important because food insecurity is a significant contributor to deficiency-related malnutrition, the world is not on track to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal of Zero Hunger by 2030, and the problem of food insecurity and hunger is actually growing.

Between 2014 and 2019, an additional 60 million people worldwide became affected by hunger,2 and if the current trend continues, the FAO projects the number of undernourished people in the world to exceed 840 million by 2030.2 The facts and statistics around food insecurity are equally depressing, and the COVID-19 pandemic is worsening the food security crisis.

The 2020 report on The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World predicts that the COVID-19 pandemic may add between 83 million and 132 million people to the total number of undernourished in the world in 2020,2 while close to 750 million people — nearly 1 in 10 people in the world — were exposed to severe levels of food insecurity in 2019.2

When those affected by moderate food insecurity are considered, an estimated 2 billion people in the world did not have regular access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food in 2019.2

Quite simply, food security is important because the reality of hundreds of millions of people throughout the world not having enough food to eat to meet their basic nutritional needs is intolerable and unacceptable.

When a child's intake of sufficient amounts of nutritious food is less than what it needs to be for healthy early childhood development, acute and long-term consequences such as wasting and stunting can result.

  • Low weight-for-height is known as wasting. It is mostly an acute condition associated with recent and severe weight loss.
  • Low height-for-age is known as stunting. It is the result of chronic or recurrent undernutrition.

47 Million
under 5 years of age suffer from wasting

144 Million
under age 5 are stunted

of children under the age of 5 result from undernutrition

Sources: World Health Organization

What Is Meant by Food Security?

The definition of food security and the global understanding of what food security is, is an evolving subject. In the mid-1970s, when the concept of food security originated, global food security discussions focused on problems with the food supply and the availability and price stability of basic food items. This is evident in the 1974 World Food Summit food security definition.

Food security is the "availability at all times of adequate world food supplies of basic foodstuffs to sustain a steady expansion of food consumption and to offset fluctuations in production and prices."3

A decade letter, in 1983, the definition of food security expanded to include access to available food "ensuring that all people at all times have both physical and economic access to the basic food that they need."4

Then, in 1986 a World Bank report about poverty and hunger distinguished between chronic food insecurity and transitory food insecurity to expand the food security definition further: "access of all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life."5

Chronic food insecurity relates to issues inherent to poverty and low incomes while transitory food insecurity involves temporary periods of food insecurity connected to natural disasters, droughts and famine, armed conflict, economic crises, infectious diseases and epidemics and pandemics such as the Zika virus, Ebola and COVID-19.

In the mid-1990s, the global food security definition broadened further to address food safety and improving nutrition, social and cultural food preferences, and the idea that food security is an important element within the broader concept of human security.

All of these ideas came together in the 1996 World Food Summit Plan of Action definition of food security, which was refined slightly in 2001 in the FAO report, The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2001.

"Food security exists 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."61996 World Food Summit Plan of Action
"Food security [is] a situation that exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life."1The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2001

What Are the Elements and Components Defining Food Security?

The evolution of the world’s food security definition, in specificity and clarity, came as the broader elements and indicators of food insecurity were better understood and defined. The World Food Programme now refers to four dimensions of food security: availability, access, utilization and stability.

Availability is concerned with whether or not food is actually present for people to access. It includes elements of food production, food reserves, markets and transportation. Then, if food is available, do families and households have the ability to take advantage of it? That is access.

Utilization addresses whether or not people are able to consume the necessary food for adequate nutrition and energy. This is the product of good care and feeding practices, food preparation, dietary diversity and distribution of food within families.

Finally, stability comes into play when the first three elements are consistently met. Environmental, economic, social and political factors can all be a sources of instablity that contribute to food insecurity.

The Ryerson University Centre for Studies in Food Security breaks down the component elements of food security a bit more extensively. Their list is called The Five A's.

  • Availability: sufficient food for all people at all times.
  • Accessibility: physical and economic access to food for all at all times.
  • Adequacy: access to food that is nutritious and safe, and produced in environmentally sustainable ways.
  • Acceptability: access to culturally acceptable food, which is produced and obtained in ways that do not compromise people’s dignity, self-respect or human rights.
  • Agency: the policies and processes that enable the achievement of food security.

What Makes Food Security Challenging to Address?

Addressing the issue of food security touches multiple areas of global society and economy.

As the world’s population grows, demand for adequate food grows. And as countries become more affluent, their diets change to include more processed foods, meat and dairy. Producing more meat means growing more grain, but climate change, water scarcity, rising food prices, urban growth and sprawl, and fewer and fewer farmers work against national and international efforts to address the different elements of food security.

Food security is about more than meat and grain production. Managing the variable and necessary trade-offs in food security such as balancing the nutritional benefits of meat against the ecological costs of food production is necessary, according to the International Food Policy Research Institute. Adaptation strategies and policies that include options for building resilience to agricultural stressors and shocks that contribute to and worsen food shortages, as well as policies handling water allocation, land use patterns, food trade, post-harvest food processing, and food safety are also needed.7

How Does Compassion International Help Address Food Insecurity?

As the world’s leading authority in holistic child development through sponsorship, Compassion understands household food security is essential to releasing children from poverty.

Through thousands of local churches around the world, sponsors and donors ease the hunger and food insecurity of more than 2 million babies, children and young adults in Africa, Asia, and Central and South America by addressing their acute needs for food, as well as the root causes of child hunger, child poverty and malnutrition.

Compassion’s Food Security Initiatives address the low food security and life-threatening hunger and food access needs of children living in extreme poverty, while also providing preventive care to support long-term health and wellness.

By giving, you help provide food, supplemental nutrition assistance and medical care to malnourished children and support to our therapeutic feeding and food stability initiatives. A donation today will also help safeguard children from illnesses that hamper early childhood development and threaten their lives.

Donate today to help address life-threatening food security needs and to provide:
  • Food assistance through healthful food kits that include essentials like rice, eggs, meat, milk, corn and other nonperishable dry goods.
  • Medical therapeutic feeding for babies, children or youths, caregivers and siblings.
  • Nutrition assistance for pregnant mothers and infants.
  • Preventive and income-generating activities that help address food insecurity long term.

Based on current economic growth, food security and hunger forecasts associated with COVID-19, Compassion anticipates facing difficult food security issues for the next several years.

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1 FAO. 2002. The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2001. Rome.

2 FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP and WHO. 2020. The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2020. Transforming food systems for affordable healthy diets. Rome, FAO.

3 United Nations. 1975. Report of the World Food Conference, Rome 5-16 November 1974. New York.

4 1983. World Food Security: a Reappraisal of the Concepts and Approaches. Director General’s Report. Rome.

5 World Bank. 1986. Poverty and Hunger: Issues and Options for Food Security in Developing Countries. Washington, D.C.

6 1996. Rome Declaration on World Food Security and World Food Summit Plan of Action. World Food Summit 13-17 November 1996. Rome.

7, International Food Policy Research Institute,


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