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23-24 October 1998
Rome, Italy

Food Security, Livelihoods and
Food Aid Interventions


This paper was written by the Strategy and Policy
Division, WFP.


Table of Contents


National Food Security
Household Food Security
The Livelihoods Concept


Coping with Food Insecurity




International attention to the concept of food security can be traced back to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, which recognized the right to food as a core element of an adequate standard of living (United Nations, 1948). However, a renewed interest in food security followed the world food crises of 1972-74. Since then the meaning of food security and approaches towards achieving it have undergone significant changes. Today, food security is deemed to exist when all people, at all times, have the food needed for an active and healthy life.

Food security is a complex phenomenon attributable to a range of factors that vary in importance across geographic and social boundaries, as well as over time (FIVIMS, IAWG, 1998). The concept of food security is multi-dimensional and provides valuable insights into the nature and extent of a population’s food situation. Additionally, food security can be looked at from many different levels: global, national, local and family. However, ultimately, it is about individuals.

WFP’s mandate is to reach hungry people living in poverty who can be helped through the provision of food. This paper discusses how WFP uses both macro and household food security concepts. It explains the dynamic nature of these concepts and the usefulness of looking at food security in a broad-based manner: namely, considering not only food supply issues but also issues of distribution and access as well as vulnerability to risks that threaten household food security.


The Evolution of Approaches to Food Security

4. Notions concerning food security have evolved dramatically over the past 25 years. Although food security was originally about whether a country produced and/or imported enough food to feed its population, the concept is now applied more to households and individuals within households. A household perspective gives a very different picture of the food situation of a population than a macro-level approach. It is a window into why some people have enough to eat and others do not.

National Food Security

In the seventies food security issues were generally analysed at the country level. The emphasis was on national food supplies, measured through food balance sheets, to determine a country’s food security status.1 The food gap approach is still used and helps to analyse the ability of countries to secure available and stable food supplies. The severity of food insecurity at the national level highlights countries that are facing grave difficulties in meeting their food needs. Within a country, regional food deficits can also be calculated in order to identify the neediest geographic/administrative areas. In many poor countries, however, regional food deficits are only production and consumption calculations, and do not take into account food flows coming from regions that produce surpluses. Thus regional balance sheets, though helpful, are most often used to identify cereal deficit areas, which may or may not be food-insecure, depending on other factors.

By the eighties it was evident that food availability at the national level did not necessarily mean that all sub-regions, and particularly households, had access to enough food. Although many countries, such as Brazil, India and Viet Nam, export cereals, at the same time they are characterized by localized areas of food deficits, where the majority of households and individuals suffer from chronic or transitory food insecurity. These examples illustrate that food security at the national level does not always translate into food security for all families within a country. Thus sub-national food security indicators can be analysed to identify local areas of food insecurity. The weakness of the national food security concept has helped move the analysis to the household level.

Household Food Security

Poverty and hunger act selectively and affect different strata of the population by different degrees even within the same community. Household- level analysis allows these differences to be identified.

Household food security has three main components: availability, access and usage. Available, stable supplies of food are a prerequisite for household food security. However, households must also have physical and economic access to food. In addition, they must have the knowledge to use such food appropriately and have a health/sanitation environment that allows for adequate absorption of food by the body.

The inclusion of access to food at the household level marked a clear departure from the previous emphasis on production. The concept of food security had evolved to include the notion that market transactions are a necessary part of securing daily subsistence for most of the world’s poor. The focus on the lack of access to food rather than its inadequate and uncertain supply has helped to explain why famines occurred in environments of apparent food abundance (Christiaensen and Tollens, 1995). Food availability is a necessary but insufficient condition for adequate household food consumption as increased reliance on off-farm activities such as petty trade, casual employment and agricultural surplus sales has made households more dependent on purchasing food than producing it.

The utilization concept adds a qualitative notion to food security in the form of nutritional security. It is no longer enough for a family to have sufficient food to be food-secure; the food must be of adequate nutritional quality, and the household must be able to use it appropriately and have a satisfactory health and sanitation environment for the body to absorb it.

While the household is the logical level at which to analyse the problem of food access, intra-household inequities and dynamics - particularly with regard to gender - play a large role in determining individuals’ food security. In other words, because a household is food-secure, this does not mean that all individuals within it are food-secure; the most vulnerable in particular may not always get enough to eat.

The "three pillars" of household food security - availability, access and usage - can each be "shocked" by a variety of risk factors including natural disasters, conflicts and policy changes.

The Livelihoods Concept

The food security of poor households is dynamic and influenced by a range of factors. The poor live in a changing world to which they must constantly adapt, and are often unprepared for the changes. Theirs is a constant struggle to meet daily basic needs. Furthermore, their daily needs consist of more than food; vital non-food needs such as shelter, clothing and health compete with food needs in terms of a household’s resource allocation (Frankenberger, 1996). Looking at livelihoods provides a richer and more detailed picture of how poor families cope with a variety of risks and shocks in meeting their basic needs.

Households can have several possible sources of income and other resources that constitute their livelihood. Livelihood systems are maintained by a range of on-farm and off-farm activities, which together provide a variety of procurement strategies for food and cash. A household’s total resources are based not only on its productive activities and endowments, but also on its legal, political and social position within society (Sen, 1981; Swift, 1989; Drinkwater and McEwan, 1992).

Livelihood systems imply a concept of sustainable food security, where the benefits of today are balanced with the benefits of tomorrow. Livelihood systems incorporate the present situation, the short-term and the long-term perspective. The objective is not only to preserve current patterns of consumption, but also to avoid destitution or sacrificing future standards of living.

Looking at livelihoods highlights two important elements influencing a household’s food security:

Livelihoods are thus secure when households have secure ownership of, or access to, resources and income-earning activities, including reserves and assets, to offset risks, ease shocks and meet contingencies (Chambers and Coney, 1992; Chambers, 1988).

The concept of livelihoods broadens the traditional understanding of food security. In a livelihood system the goal is to procure all the capabilities, assets and activities required for a means of living: adequate food is a central concern, but not the only one. By looking at how poor households cope to meet their basic needs, the importance of adaptation and risk diversification has come to the forefront in the battle against vulnerability. The implication for policy-making is that increased agricultural productivity is not the only solution. The answer lies in supporting the diversification of income sources and assets, as well as promoting investments and activities that help households to face shocks to their livelihoods and reduce risks.


Threats to livelihoods and coping strategies

Livelihood systems in poor countries are likely to become more structurally vulnerable owing to one or a combination of the following factors:

Some communities are experiencing a progressive erosion of their basis of subsistence, leading to further degradation of their natural resource base to compensate for these shortfalls.

Recurrent shocks to livelihood systems are making it more and more difficult for poor people to develop sustainable livelihoods. Vulnerability is becoming structural rather than transitory for many communities. Those living in fragile or marginal agro-ecological zones are often forced to farm increasingly marginal lands. They contribute to the process of deforestation and desertification in their search for fuel and their efforts to create more arable land. Adequate rangelands for livestock are limited and hence often overgrazed.

Community-level buffers against periodic income and food shortages are beginning to disappear (Davies, 1996). At the same time, the allocation of government resources to social services, food transfers and agricultural development has been significantly affected by structural adjustment measures and a shift in resource allocation for emergency or drought-relief operations. As a result, livelihood systems in many parts of the world are becoming less sustainable (Frankenberger, 1996).

People adopt coping strategies in response to different risks and thus shocks to their livelihoods. Coping strategies are a series of decisions and actions that result in trade-offs between current and future consumption – the accumulation of savings for worse times. The range of coping and adaptive strategies is large and differs according to the particular conditions.

Twin criteria are often used in choosing coping strategies. The first concerns the impact the strategy will have on the livelihood system. The second is the reversibility of the strategy. Those activities that are the least damaging to livelihoods are undertaken first. For instance, the sale of non-productive assets, such as jewellery, is preferred to the sale of productive assets, such as oxen or ploughs. Second, reversibility implies that those actions of a "no way back" nature are discarded if reversible strategies are still available. Accordingly, a reduction in the number of meals would be preferred to the sale of assets, particularly productive ones.

Consciously or not, coping strategies are ranked and followed according to certain preferences. Not all options contained in the different strategies are utilized but some are followed up to a "reasonable point" where the cost of going further exceeds the cost of changing to a lower-ranked strategy. This results in several coping strategies being followed simultaneously. The picture of livelihoods in times of crisis is one of a diversity of activities and of coping strategies. All are components of a strategy of risk diversification oriented to guaranteeing both current and future consumption. Food concerns are one variable to be considered together with other needs, in both a short-term and long-term perspective.

Coping with Food Insecurity

Food consumption is used in conjunction with other coping strategies as a buffer in times of crisis. Coping strategies are employed to mitigate the effects of not having enough food to meet the household’s needs. Some coping strategies are positive means of overcoming food shortages, for example off-farm employment when it is available, savings that can be called upon and family networks for sharing. However, for many poor people coping strategies are negative - that is, they have a long-term detrimental effect. Examples of negative coping strategies are: severe reduction in food consumption, selling productive assets, reducing expenditures on basic services such as health and education, and abnormal migration (Corbett, 1988; Taal, 1989).

In times of crisis, two options regarding food are available: protecting consumption or modifying consumption. Protecting consumption means that the household either purchases food or receives it from relatives, the community or outside sources. Modifying consumption implies a reduction in the household’s consumption, a diversification of its consumption, or a reduction in the number of consumers in the family. Reducing a household’s consumption can range from limiting the size of an individual’s portion to skipping whole meals. Diversifying consumption usually means eating foods that are less preferred and less expensive. Reducing the number of consumers is most often achieved by sending certain members of the family to live and/or work elsewhere. Often a household will reduce and modify consumption simultaneously.


WFP’s use of the concepts of food security and livelihoods

As the above discussion illustrates, the relevance and meaning of food security depend on the level to which it refers -- national or household. Furthermore, the use of the concept of livelihoods provides a means of nuancing our understanding of what happens when poor people face food insecurity. Looking at livelihoods reveals the diversity of threats facing poor households and their food security, and the complexity of their responses to these threats.

Aggregate indicators of food security are still required as a first approach to prioritize beneficiary countries based on their ability to ensure food security for their populations. Country classifications such as the United Nations’ least developed countries and FAO’s low-income, food-deficit countries combined with measures such as the Aggregate Household Food Security Index2 and the relative inadequacy of food ratio3 provide criteria that enable WFP to allocate resources to countries facing severe difficulties in meeting consumption needs. Within countries sub-national indicators of poverty, crop production and malnutrition help identify the regions where WFP will intervene.

National food security is not sufficient to guarantee the food security of individuals. WFP’s mandate is to assist those who are poor and hungry. WFP cannot target specific individuals. However, groups of individuals can be targeted and are selected by their common characteristics and their common geographic location. These groups often constitute poor, food-insecure communities located in remote and/or resource-poor areas. Understanding how the majority of households within a community cope with risk and shocks to their livelihoods can help WFP intervene with a specific resource – food – to reduce vulnerability to food insecurity. The household provides the highest level of disaggregation that can reasonably be achieved to assess the food security of individuals.

The multiple factors that have an impact on people’s food security can be analysed through the concept of household food security. It is through this analysis that WFP is able to determine whether food is an answer to the problem, or whether some other type of assistance is necessary. Moreover, this approach also allows WFP to identify complementary assistance and hence appropriate partners that may be required to help poor households overcome hunger. For example, in a food-surplus region, a high rate of malnutrition among children may mean that weaning and other child-caring practices are inappropriate to ensure adequate nutritional intake. It may also indicate distributional problems between adults and children. This problem is probably best treated not through food but through another type of assistance. On the other hand, if the area is cereal-deficit and a lack of food is combined with inappropriate caring practices, then a targeted food aid intervention combined with nutritional education may be a suitable response.

Using the concept of household livelihood systems WFP can discern how food aid can be best used. One role of food assistance is to contribute to livelihood sustainability, or to allow livelihoods to cope with and recover from stresses and shocks. In remote, isolated areas where food is either not available on the market or not at prices poor people can afford, households have difficulty meeting their basic food needs and may often resort to negative coping strategies such as selling productive assets and depleting other asset bases. When food shortages are the expression of temporary deficits, such as during the lean season before the new harvest, households, and particularly women, often rely on strategies that overexploit their natural resource base and reduce their family consumption, which frequently results in reduced nutritional status for family members. These are examples of where food aid interventions for specific individuals and during specific times of the year can help households cope with their vulnerability to food insecurity. Food aid interventions would provide a necessary resource for the household to meet its basic needs, help to preserve assets and in some cases build assets, thereby reducing risk and vulnerability.

In other circumstances, food aid may be required at particular times, or at particular periods in the lives of the poor when adequate nutrition is crucial for their future, as in the case of expectant and nursing mothers and children under five. Only by identifying where those in need are located, who they are and when they require food assistance can WFP make a valuable contribution to satisfy their needs. This approach coincides with WFP’s people-centred approach, as mentioned in its Mission Statement, leading to a better understanding of beneficiaries and the way they can be reached with interventions that will not only provide them with food, but will also help support and promote their livelihoods and hence their ability to cope with adverse situations.

Using the livelihoods approach provides WFP with the analytical tools necessary to realign its interventions away from providing resources in the form of relief food towards protecting resources by supporting existing sources of income, and boosting resources by developing or increasing incomes and assets through diversification of activities (Sen, 1981). The challenge for WFP is to use food assistance as a deterrent to negative coping strategies and as a catalyst for preserving and enhancing livelihoods.

A principal objective of development food aid should be to assist the food-insecure to save assets and preserve future livelihoods when food is short. Thus, food aid can serve as a timely intervention designed to avert rather than respond to an emergency (Save the Children Fund, 1998). The livelihoods concept implies that more emphasis should be placed on using food aid when food insecurity threatens assets and resources. Only when this has failed should provision through relief interventions be employed. When linked to notions of sustainability, the livelihoods approach calls for preventive support rather than the palliative and stop-go practice of emergency relief.


The term food security has evolved tremendously over the last two decades. There has been a shift in the level of analysis from a primary concern in the seventies with national and international food security, defined in terms of the level and reliability of aggregate food supplies, to a focus starting in the eighties on individual and household food security, with emphasis on access, vulnerability and risk. The evolution in thinking about food security and the current trend towards improving knowledge of how livelihood systems operate indicate a more in-depth understanding of food insecurity, how it affects poor households and how households respond.

The following points illustrate how WFP can use the concepts of food security and livelihoods to improve its interventions:



1 Balance sheets are used to calculate a country’s food gap. This is the difference between aggregate consumption needs and actual food supplies, through either production or imports.

2 The Aggregate Household Food Security Index (AHFSI) is a composite index that ranks countries on the basis of the estimated prevalence and intensity of food inadequacy. The AHFSI is an ordinal index ranked from 1 to 100, with 100 approaching food security.

3 The relative inadequacy of food ratio is based on the same principle as the AHFSI, but instead of ranking countries, this measure determines for each country the amount of calories (dietary energy supply) required to meet the food gap of the undernourished. This gap is then presented as a ratio: the amount of calories needed to bring everyone to an adequate nutritional standard divided by the amount of calories available nationally.



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