To many people, health is largely a matter of perspective. In the main, we subscribe to a working definition that includes feeling physically good; able to act and react according to some semblance of a reasonable self image; remaining fit in a passable manner; and weighing in at something near the insurance industry’s norms.
Food security is another matter: some people describe food security as little more than being assured of the next meal, whereas others are unsatisfied with anything less than pantries full of canned and dried goods and well-stocked freezers. Members of disciplines as disparate as nutrition, planning and development, medicine, social justice law, and the armed services have considered the meaning and uses of the term with a view to overcoming the implied warning in its terminology.
Both health and food security are fraught with expectations at social, academic, and governmental/regulatory levels. Both are states of mind as well as physical conditions. Absent either, the human organism eventually dies. In short, health and food security are necessary to life—all life, and in the case of the present examination of the terms, most pointedly to human life. Health and food security are worth consideration because they are basic to life and because they have at all times in specific contexts existed in some imbalance. In general, when it comes to health and food security we expect much and plan all too little.
The author, in search of food security
Food security versus food insecurity
Depending on the audience, experts have defined food security in formal and informal ways. In 1996, participants at the World Summit identified the presence of food security as in effect “when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life.” Participants also emphasized the combined requirements of being able to find and afford both nutritious food and food that meets an individual’s preferences. According to the Bureau of Public Affairs, it is thought across the globe that, quite simply, people are food secure when they can find and pay for food. Under this rubric, families are food secure when the members neither experience hunger nor fear starvation. Furthermore, people with ethnic traditions and socio-religious mandates require that food be culturally appropriate. Many will refuse foods—even when hungry, even when in the midst of a food shortage—that fail to meet their expectations. At least one local source, the Community Food Security Coalition, maintains that “community food security is a condition in which all community residents obtain a safe, culturally acceptable, nutritionally adequate diet through a sustainable food system that maximizes community self-reliance and social justice.”
Regarding the relationship between health status and food security, it may be sufficient to define good health as the ability to withstand the effects of exposure to illness and injury. The connection between nutritious food and health status is, from this perspective, fundamental, whether or not innate. Leaving aside the question of how to educate people to make healthy and nutritious choices, assuring access and affordability becomes a matter of public policy and the generous application of social support.
Also worth noting is the counter-intuitive notion of wide-spread hunger and food insecurity in the presence of abundance. Inequalities in distribution combined with general and pervasive poverty and a lack of knowledge about food preferences and prohibitions can result in food insecurity so endemic that neither individuals nor communities can overcome barriers to supply and access adequate to mitigate the problem.
In the past couple of decades, the terms and circumstances of food insecurity have been the subjects of increasing scrutiny. Citing 1990 research findings, the USDA describes food insecurity as “. . . limited or uncertain availability of adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.” What is more, the conditions associated with food insecurity are just those that we expect will result from declines in the availability of energy and the subsequent threats to the status of human health.
Hunger, food insecurity, and the effects on health
Until recently, the absence or presence of hunger was the primary measurement by which many experts assessed food security as it applies to an individual’s well-being. Without minimizing the significance of hunger, researchers recognized that hunger in a household might be an inconsistent problem and might apply primarily to one or more persons without being true of the entire household. Wanting to understand the role of hunger as it relates to food insecurity, researchers and policy makers began to think about food security or insecurity in the larger context of the community and the availability of food in general. Questions that routinely arose included the following:
- What are the circumstances of hunger in a household?
- Who, in a household, experiences hunger, and why?
- What are the effects of hunger in a household?
- What is required to relieve hunger, both temporarily and permanently?
Such inquiries found that hunger is typically the result of inadequate resources to obtain food but can exist when food are limited, too. Hunger often affects select adults who may ration food for more vulnerable members of the household. In the presence of food insecurity, hunger can affect everyone, especially the very young and the very old. Effects can include periodic hunger and the potential to develop food insecurity, if a lack of resources to acquire food or the unavailability of food is the cause of hunger. To achieve short- and long-term improvements in relieving routine or chronic hunger accompanied by food insecurity requires that planners, leaders, farmers and other food producers, just to name a few invested parties, develop a systemic understanding of the problem.
As a result of this and associated research, the USDA in particular altered its use of terms related to hunger and food insecurity, and has continued to look for refinements in ways of categorizing and addressing both phenomena. Germane to this TCLocal article is the realization by USDA and others that the understanding of hunger deriving from food insecurity “. . . results in discomfort, illness, weakness, or pain that goes beyond the usual uneasy sensation [of hunger].” Especially during the past two decades of discussion and investigation, policy makers and those responsible for conducting research and the instruction of the next generation of field and university researchers and educators have come to appreciate the connection between food insecurity and the conditions, manifestations, and ramifications of ill health. Among other things, the implication is that hunger, in addition to being a symptom of food insecurity, is also a part of the panoply of conditions that signal compromised health status.
Undernourishment and malnutrition are two conditions widely agreed to be the results of hunger and food insecurity. Among children, conditions that can coincide with the latter include weight loss, fatigue, stunting of growth, and frequent colds. Studies have shown that undernourished pregnant women are more likely to bear babies with low birth weight, and the babies are then more likely to experience developmental delays that can lead to learning problems.
Iron deficiency anemia is also common among hungry and food insecure children on one end of the spectrum and older adults on the other. In children, the condition can cause delays in development and learning. Children with iron deficiency anemia are also more susceptible to the effects of lead poisoning. In people of every age group, iron deficiency anemia can cause fatigue, weakness, shortness of breath, and irregular heart rhythms, among other symptoms.
Moreover, hunger and food insecurity worsen the effects of all diseases and can accelerate degenerative conditions, especially among the elderly. Hunger and food insecurity create psychological responses such as anxiety, hostility, and negative perceptions of self-worth. In an energy- and resource-constrained world, diseases like malaria, HIV/AIDS, dengue fever, and other infectious conditions from distant places, which experts anticipate will migrate in reaction to changes in weather patterns, can be expected to become more prevalent. More frequent incidents of these and other opportunistic diseases are likely to be reported, resulting in the potential to overburden the ability of any medical or public health system that tries to address the problem(s).
Local considerations in combating hunger and food insecurity
In an energy-constrained future, such as TCLocal envisions in the next 10 to 20 years, food insecurity and its consequences are expected to be increasingly common. The combined pressures of a larger population, climate change, reduction in the adjuvant energy required to grow food as well as the increased cost of such energy, and the potential for reduced or altered water resources could all create the environmental circumstances that lead to food insecurity. In fact, simply based on a growing population with the means to purchase choice foods, the demand for food could increase by as much as 50 percent by 2030. On the other hand, researchers speculate that increased demand and falling productivity could create widespread hunger and food insecurity, especially in the poorest communities of the world. All over the world, taking a preventive approach to food insecurity will require that we improve agricultural productivity and make access to markets easier.
The outlook for our region is likely to be similar to that of the rest of the Northern Hemisphere, if not the world. The good news is that many of the residents of Tompkins County have developed an appreciation for the need to husband resources, as well as some of the skills to be effective at the practice. Locally, educators in well-established and informal venues alike have focused on the connection between promoting food security in combination with supporting good health, underscoring that each facilitates the other.
Assessing food security on a local level at this juncture with a view to predicting the potential for future changes will allow for planning and intervention. For example, according to 2009 statistics regarding the perception of hunger in Tompkins County, people across all income levels reported that the problem was widely evident. Twenty-three percent of respondents in the county’s COMPASS survey said that having enough money to buy food was a problem in their own households. The use of local food pantries increased 30 percent between 2003 and 2008. Food stamp use also increased during the same period, with 4,223 households reporting participation in this subsidized food program in 2008 versus 2,288 households participating in 2003. Between 2001 and 2007, increases in reduced-fee or free lunches were noted among school children, with a quarter or more of all students in Groton, Dryden, Ithaca, and Newfield receiving support in the purchase of their meals. Thus even in Tompkins County, where the standard of living is widely thought to be above average, a notable number of households experience hunger and food insecurity.
Though more can be accomplished, much is being done to address the problems associated with declines in health and food security. The services of agencies like the Department of Social Services, Catholic Charities, TC Action, the Red Cross, FoodNet, and others directly address local problems and enjoy an overall reputation for effectiveness. At the same time, the notable array of local Community Supported Agriculture seasonal options, the variety of U-pick and share farms in our area, the small and large market gardens, and the many agencies and local programs that educate people about how to use and preserve food have increased the general awareness of the need to address food security in Tompkins County.
A short list of local access-oriented programs includes emergency food services through Loaves & Fishes and the Salvation Army; the United Way’s Food Pantry Garden in Brooktondale; the school district’s Fresh Food and Vegetable program, which serves elementary age children; and assistance to childcare providers, parents, and pregnant teens through the Child Development Council, just to name a few. The Human Services Coalition’s Information and Referral program and 2-1-1 Connect have also been helpful in directing people to much needed resources, including food resources. Web-based support is available through the Community Cooperative Extension and the locally developed websites of Prepared Tompkins, IthaCan, and Harvestation. As is true in many communities across the U.S., in Tompkins County the internet has the capacity to connect people with resources by way of specific mail lists that promote local activities and community solutions to many problems, including hunger, food insecurity, and the consequences for health.
Increasing awareness of the existence of or potential for hunger among our neighbors and friends has spurred local efforts to find immediate relief. Although considered an unsanctioned method of food collection in some parts of the Western world, gleaning is not uncommon in communities across the U.S. In this region, grassroots efforts to serve and protect the poor among us have been responsible for large local gleaning projects, frequently announced on the mailing lists of Sustainable Tompkins and the Finger Lakes Permaculture Institute, among others.
Local food security is also promoted by community gardens, where area residents not only grow food for their tables but practice prevention and health promotion in the act of working outside. Many local groups, including TCLocal, the Level Green Institute, and Sustainable Tompkins, have called for the development of this readily available solution to the problem.
Local options for enhancing health and food security
At an evening meeting of farmers and others interested in issues related to local food production, one of the farmers responded to the question, “Can the farmers in Tompkins County feed the population here?” with, “No. We can probably provide just 20 percent of the needs of the local community.” Important in this anecdote is 1) the farmer’s frank assessment and 2) that the question arose just four years ago.
Others have asked whether New York State can feed itself. Indeed, in a time of energy descent, when fewer resources are available to grow and transport food, the potential for growing food closer to home, as well as recruiting and supporting local growers, may be among the most important questions to ask. In addition to assessing how much food production is possible locally, planners, growers, and area residents should consider the ways in which each might contribute to the solution rather than merely being part of the problem.
For starters, every yard and container has the capacity to be a food garden of one kind or another. Today the activity might primarily focus on cultivating the skills to grow food, whereas future circumstances may require skills honed to fill the table and the larder. Spending time outside in the garden encourages bone density through the absorption of vitamins. It also helps to build muscles and to keep the body fit and healthy. While not everyone likes to work in the garden, most of us like to eat. Learning to think about food production as a civic responsibility has historical contexts all over the world, as much in Tompkins County as anywhere else.
Legislators at all levels of government could help more of us to be producers rather than only consumers of food. Suspending or discontinuing ordinances that restrict farming, gardening, and tree-crop production could encourage more participation in the food economy, most likely at the informal level. Whether considering food for sale, barter, or personal consumption, reducing the unnecessary barriers to food production that inhibit growers is the first step in ensuring that everyone has enough to eat. Rethinking area ordinances about the management of food and food systems will be necessary to enhancing health and food security in an energy-constrained world. Considerations of what constitutes agricultural land, who can hold it, and how it’s taxed should be topics of discussion at county, town, and city levels of local government.
In general, Tompkins County has an abundance of fertile, versatile land and adequate water supplies to promote the growth of every manner of food that can be produced in this climate. Increasingly significant in the study of agricultural techniques are nutritional outcomes, depending on the quality of soil and its augmentation. Despite many studies and much debate, the jury remains undecided about the relative value of organic versus conventional methods of soil management for the sake of healthy nutritional impacts. Nonetheless, researchers do agree that organic methods produce less environmental stress. At the very least, the absence of additives, typically derived from natural gas, commends organic techniques to the small farmer or gardener in circumstances of energy descent. No matter which methods we use to grow food, we must thoughtfully manage the short- and long-term integrity of the soil if we want to help retain its best characteristics year after year.
So too must we be careful stewards of the region’s ponds, creeks, and lakes. At the local level, the protection of all water resources is a matter directly related to health and food security. The public health department oversees the potability of water, relying on standards set at state and federal levels. Common sense and a basic understanding of interdependencies are enough to show that poor management of our water will affect whether we can grow adequate food, not to mention whether water supplies are safe for our consumption and for consumption by livestock.
Animal husbandry includes the allocation of important food resources, but the practice is presently defined and permitted according to economic standards that we, under circumstances of reduced access to energy, cannot hope to sustain. Owning a cow or a flock of chickens, for example, may not be necessary to every family, yet the availability of milk and eggs locally sold (or shared) and produced might well come to be viewed as a necessary feature of community life.
At the same time, assuring that those who work to grow food, whether formally or informally, have access to hygienic resources makes good sense from the perspectives of safeguarding the talent and skill necessary to effective farming and gardening and to the quality of our food at its source. People need bathrooms and sinks or other hand washing options, especially options that don’t contribute more trash to already overburdened landfills or the use of supplies made from oil or natural gas. We could make facilities more widely available near gardens and farms, and we could manage them locally.
Discussions at NOFA conferences and other similar meetings are reportedly well attended, exhibiting the kind of regional knowledge and sensitivity to local issues that supports asking important questions about food issues and promotes success in approaches to planning that address those issues. In particular, food policy councils, frequently made up of interested professionals, community members, farmers, vendors, and legislators, have proven to be useful in some communities in helping to organize the selection, production, and distribution of food. As noted earlier in this article, a loose coalition of food experts and community organizers in Tompkins County has lately convened to discuss the possibility of an area food council. Among others, issues explored included, first, the activities helpful to improving the local food system via a food policy council, and second, the necessary resources and commitment needed for success.
In this article, I have described just a few considerations related to health and food security. I hope that others will follow up my work with a deeper and more expert examination of the issues. In addition to adhering to the principles that guide TCLocal in its goal of understanding how residents might operate with fewer resources and more sustainable approaches to development, I recommend that we examine first principles of fair access, fair use, and fair expectations regarding health and food security. A healthy, integrated, and self-aware community must learn how to share resources, recognizing that the whole is only as strong as its weakest part.