Public Health Food Security and Food Banks
Carol Dawne Milligan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 September 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 February 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756797-0030


Food security refers to a state in which adequate amounts of nutritious, safe, and culturally appropriate food to support a healthful diet are available, accessible in a socially acceptable manner, and expected to remain accessible. A number of dimensions of food security have been identified, such as the quantity, quality, and variety of foods available and lack of worry about the ability to acquire these foods. There are opposing views of how food security is to be attained: the technologically oriented view favors technological solutions, large-scale agribusiness, globalization, and economy of scale, while the alternative view favors local control over food systems, ecologically sustainable agriculture, and respect for equality and human rights. Locally, food insecurity may result from a lack of purchasing power or from insufficient production or availability of food. With a growing proportion of the world’s population having lost access to traditional lands and therefore to a means of subsistence (and with many having become impoverished labor surplus in urban centers), the cost of food has become more critical to the ability to procure adequate food. At the same time, a downward trend in labor wages and safeguards as well as an upward trend in food prices has plunged increasing numbers of the world’s population into food insecurity, hunger, and starvation. The causes of rising food prices vary and may include increased demand from industrializing nations, competition between using food to feed people and to produce biofuel, climate change, financial speculation in commodities, the costs of increased pollution, competition for scarce land and water resources, and unevenness in the control and subsidization of production and distribution. Estimates in 2010 were that over one billion people—in urban as well as rural areas and in developed as well as developing countries—suffer from food insecurity on a daily basis, and a substantial number of these people die from starvation every year. The obesity epidemic can be tied to food security/insecurity through a number of dimensions, such as the high cost of nutritious produce, meat, and fish; increased consumption of manufactured foods of low or questionable nutritional quality; and a shift of a large segment of the world’s population from rural to more obesogenic urban work and living environments. Food banks are charitable nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in developed countries dedicated to collecting and distributing food free of charge to the needy. Emergency charitable assistance such as food distributed through food banks is not a long-range solution to food insecurity, however. It is not based on entitlement or rights; it does not support economic and community development for the users, enabling them to overcome poverty; and it generally does not provide adequate nutritional value to support health over the long term.

Reference Works

There are few reference works that deal exclusively with food security. The most comprehensive work is a history of food security, Shaw 2007. More focused works are Maxwell and Frankenberger 1992, which reviews household food security concepts, indicators, and measurements, and Nord and Hopwood 2007, a review of the development of measures of food security at the household, adult, and child levels. Renzaho and Mellor 2010 provides a critique of the early-21st-century state of development of food security concepts and indicators, arguing that they are not sufficient when applied to populations in or from nonindustrial societies. They provide an expanded model that stresses contextual and structural factors that should be integrated into food security concepts and indicators. Lee 2007 discusses another early-21st-century movement in the international food security literature, that of the concept of food sovereignty, a movement that stresses the rights of individuals (particularly, but not limited to, those from indigenous groups) to maintain control over their own food production and acquisition. Mooney and Hunt 2009 deconstructs the term “food security” to show how it is focused and used by different political and economic constituencies, while Maxwell 1996, a discussion of the multiplicity of meanings and dimensions of the term, supports the localization of the development and application of the concept, arguing that the variations reveal the diversity of food security/insecurity experiences of poor people.

  • Lee, Richard. 2007. Food security and food sovereignty. Centre for Rural Economy Discussion Paper 11. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Centre for Rural Economy, Newcastle Univ.

    Discusses the new international food sovereignty movement that has arisen to counter trade-driven concepts of food security. Discusses various conceptualizations of food security and food sovereignty in play in the early 21st century regarding the World Trade Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization (United Nations organizations) as well as the demands of the food sovereignty movement to remove agriculture from the international trade system.

  • Maxwell, Simon. 1996. Food Security: A Post-modern Perspective. Food Policy 21.2: 155–170.

    DOI: 10.1016/0306-9192(95)00074-7

    A conceptual history of the term “food security” in which Maxwell argues for the benefits of the incorporation of complexity and diversity into definitions of food security and that to do so supports consideration of the subjective perceptions of the food insecure (e.g., “feelings” rather than “conditions” of deprivation) as important indicators of food security. A useful counter to attempts at standardization and simplification but one that requires a new approach to food security policy.

  • Maxwell, Simon, and Timothy R. Frankenberger. 1992. Household food security: Concepts, indicators, and measurements; A technical review. New York and Rome: United Nations Children’s Fund and International Fund for Agricultural Development.

    A comprehensive review that includes a conceptual review of household food security and indicators and methods of data collection for studying household food security, with annotated bibliographies on each of these topics.

  • Mooney, Patrick H., and Scott A. Hunt. 2009. Food security: the elaboration of contested claims to a consensus frame. Rural Sociology 74.4: 469–497.

    DOI: 10.1526/003601109789864053

    Discusses how the term “food security” has multiple shades of meaning and nuance that support a variety of approaches to ownership of the associated problems, resulting in a lack of clarity when the term is used and use of the term for different power and political ends. Presents three distinct action frames under the umbrella term: hunger, community development, and the industrialized food system.

  • Nord, Mark, and Heather Hopwood. 2007. Recent advances provide improved tools for measuring children’s food security. Journal of Nutrition 137:533–536.

    Describes the history of the development of measures of food security in the United States beginning in the mid-1980s and further work that went on to develop measures of child food security.

  • Renzaho, Andre M. N., and David Mellor. 2010. Food security measurement in cultural pluralism: Missing the point or conceptual misunderstanding? Nutrition 26.1: 1–9.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.nut.2009.05.001

    A critique of the definitions and indicators of food security used in developed countries when applied to population groups from developing or stressed areas that have migrated to developed countries. Argues for context-specific and structural-level-specific definitions and indicators and adds “asset creation” as a new indicator.

  • Shaw, D. John. 2007. World Food Security: A History since 1945 Basingstoke, UK; Palgrave Macmillan.

    Chronicles the efforts of many organizations, including the various United Nations agencies involved, in the attempt to organize food security for all of humanity since the end of World War II. Very comprehensive and detailed, including references to conferences, summits, and declarations, and very readable.

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