“The face of food worldwide food insecurity is the face of a young woman.” This was said by Food Science and Human Nutrition Professor Dr. Juan Andrade, who I had the pleasure of meeting a few months ago while he gave a presentation in one of my classes. The class focuses on innovative solutions that we can give in response to rising environmental challenges that will likely arise in our future due to factors such as population growth and aging population structures. One challenge that is present today, and is likely to get worse in the future due to a variety of causes, is global food insecurity. However, with ambitious researchers and scientists like Dr. Andrade, we can combat current trends and potentially mitigate the problems that we will face as a global community in the future.
But before we dive into these specific solutions, what exactly is food insecurity? The FAO defines it as “a situation that exists when people lack secure access to sufficient amounts of safe and nutritious food for normal growth and development and an active and healthy life.” This definition draws attention to the fact that it is not enough to simply have access to food in general, but the food that is available needs to be nutritious and safe. This is something that I feel is largely overlooked, especially in the case of urban areas, where it may be true that there is food available to residents of a certain neighborhood, but the food that they can get comes from places like gas stations, fast food restaurants, and convenience stores. These urban areas are typically located in large cities and are categorized as food deserts; according to the USDA, these areas are defined as “as parts of the country vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods, usually found in impoverished areas. This is largely due to a lack of grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and healthy food providers.” Unfortunately, the residents of these areas must rely on convenience store products, which tend to offer only processed, packaged foods and a very miniscule- if at any- selection of fresh fruits and vegetables. This causes the residents to be food insecure, as their overall health and well-being is severely impacted, as those in food deserts are more likely to suffer from conditions like obesity, heart disease, etc.
On a global scale, food insecurity takes much different forms; issues in the United States related to food insecurity typically are associated to obesity-related problems, while in impoverished countries, the reality that food insecure individuals face is quite the opposite. According to Dr. Andrade, the food insecure in areas of the world like Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia and Central/South America are exposed to consequences like starvation, malnutrition, high child mortality rates, etc. To put this in perspective, in 2015, just a short 4 years ago, there were 5 child deaths per minute worldwide, and 45% of those deaths were associated with malnutrition. Dr. Andrade’s work is largely centered on improving the lives of individuals and families in these areas by helping them transition from being food insecure, to food secure through a variety of strategies.
In an interview that I was lucky to conduct with Dr. Andrade in March, I asked him a few questions about his work and the importance of drawing attention to the issue of global food insecurity. In light of March being International Women’s Month, I wanted to highlight his focus on improving the lives of impoverished women worldwide in addressing food insecurity problems. I had asked him to expand on the claim he made in regards to the face of food insecurity being the face of a young woman in poverty (mentioned above), his response was that women in poorer areas of the world are more susceptible to issues related to food insecurity because they are responsible for providing for the family, typically while the husband works and provides monetary support. In his words “agriculture is the largest industry in impoverished countries.. And women have a large stake in agricultural practices.” According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, in 2015, women comprised of 43% of the agricultural labor force worldwide, two-thirds of livestock keepers in poor countries, and globally, young women spent 140 million hours each day collecting clean water for their families.
This means that shocks to the agricultural industry in these countries will most directly affect the women, who labor in their fields, take care of their livestock, and provide food for their families. Despite the huge contribution that women make to food production globally, in some areas they are treated as though they are second-rate citizens, or in worse cases, property; in parts of Southeast Asia, “women tend to eat the least, or to eat leftovers after other family members have eaten—often the result of gender-role internalization.” In many instances, even though they are contributing just as much, if not more, to the family than their husbands, most businesses will not sell or even speak to the wife if the husband is not present or speaking on her behalf, according to Dr. Andrade’s experiences in these areas. He emphasizes that because women are forced to be reliant on the man in most of these societies, they are deprived of self-sufficiency, which is a significant contributing factor to the fact that women are on average, more food insecure than men globally.
To address these issues related to food insecurity, Dr. Andrade focuses on one major solution: empowering women in impoverished countries. From his perspective, these cycles of poverty are caused by a lack of resources available to them, leading to powerlessness. However, by giving them opportunities to obtain self-sufficiency through things like education, reproductive power, greater access to better farming technologies, etc. they are able to improve both their own quality of life, but their family’s as well. According to a number of studies, investing in young women’s education in poor countries accounted for a 43% reduction in child malnutrition overtime, and increasing education for girls just by 1 year has been shown to reduce a country’s birth rate by 5%.
Dr. Andrade’s work in low-income countries has positively impacted the women in their communities by providing education on proper nutrition, reproductive health, the importance of breastfeeding, financial management education, etc. which has contributed to better food security, decreased child malnutrition and a sense of empowerment for the women there. It ultimately is an issue that must be approached from many different angles, as the cycles of oppression and poverty that contribute to food insecurity are caused by variety of economic, cultural and societal norms. The biggest challenge in Dr. Andrade’s mind is changing these norms that have been embedded in these cultures for hundreds of years.
However, the importance of this work cannot be overstated; recent projections for future food demand have shown a need for doubling the food production by 2050, in combination with a severe lack of resources that will be available in the future, should raise up warning flags for us to make improvements, especially in food production. Women are a large portion of the agricultural laborers on this planet, and there needs to be greater attention drawn to their empowerment if we are to address any of the oncoming challenges related to food production.
I want to close this article with a personal anecdote from Dr. Andrade, who was recounting an experience that he had while working in communities in Honduras: A young girl who lived in the community with her family spoke of her dreams of going to school, and when asked why she was not attending school, stated that her father had told her she can’t go because she needs to help the mother with housework. Her father was away most days working at a coffee farm, while her mother was left to handle things around the house. Her older brother was able to learn farming techniques from the father so that one day he may provide for the family, while the girl was taught household chores. She continued to dream of going to a nice school with other girls and learning things, just like her brother, but her role was in the house, taking care of cleaning, cooking, sewing and helping the rest of her family.
This young girl’s experience is not at all different from many girls’ stories around the world, who yearn to have the same opportunities of personal achievement and advancement as their brothers do, but are held back by social, economic and political institutions. Ultimately, the empowerment of these girls can offer relief for not only them, but their families and communities as well. The relationship between education, better employment, lower birth rates, better health and improved nutrition is one that we should emphasize and advertise if we are to combat recent trends of oppression from poverty cycles. In affluent countries like our own, we should be asking ourselves not only what we can do to help ourselves, but to help those who are not given the opportunity to help themselves.