Healthy and affordable food is a basic survival need. Consistent access to nutritious food supports an individual’s growth, energy levels, and immune system function. Food is also deeply connected with family, community, and social interactions. Community networks and social support systems may also suffer when people lack secure food access.
Despite the universal need for food, significant numbers of people worldwide lack consistent access to sufficient, nourishing, culturally appropriate food, a condition many national governments and multilateral institutions describe as food insecurity. In the US, food access difficulties have risen sharply since the COVID-19 pandemic, with around 11% of the population facing food access shortfalls in 2018 compared to more than 25% in 2020. A complementary component of food security that is gaining traction as a new policy goal is nutrition security, which refers to the nutritional adequacy of available and affordable food.
Additionally, food access difficulties are not limited to caloric or nutrient sufficiency. Since the 1990s, critiques led by smallholder farmer association La Via Campesina have pointed out that where food comes from and who has control over producing it are also important elements of ensuring food access. The food sovereignty approach recognizes the need for land access and equitable local control over food production.
Unfortunately, responses to global hunger have historically fallen short of ensuring universal, durable access to healthful and nourishing food. Food assistance programs and disaster relief efforts, while critical for redressing acute hunger, are not sufficient to address the full range of political, social, and structural causes of chronic food access difficulties.
Food access challenges are complex problems with multiple intersecting causes, including corporate control of food and agriculture, poverty and unemployment, institutionalized racism, inequitable healthcare access, and weather and climate instability.
WHAT IS FOOD ACCESS?
Food access refers to the stable availability of nourishing, affordable, and suitable foods. Physical and economic accessibility are important elements, along with production systems that prioritize the wellbeing of food producers and consumers. Food access is shaped by a wide range of structural, economic, and social factors:
- Suitable agricultural land and weather patterns for consistent food production
- Sufficient farm labor and machinery to produce adequate quantities of food
- Policies that support the production of nutritious foods for human consumption
- Adequate distribution networks to bring farm products to retail markets
- Presence of nearby food markets within reasonable travel time for local residents
- Availability of safe and effective transportation to reach food markets
- Presence and affordability of fresh foods at nearby food markets
- Presence and accessibility of culturally relevant foods
- Local balance between availability of fresh foods and prevalence of highly processed foods with fewer nutritional benefits
- Ability and accessibility of local food assistance benefits and emergency support
- Quality of foods served by food banks and donation centers
- The knowledge, skills, and tools needed to prepare fresh foods
- Suitable facilities in which to prepare fresh foods
- Available time to prepare fresh foods
In short, food access is about much more than simply the availability of foods for purchase. Consistent, equitable food access for all depends on food systems and social systems that contribute to ensuring food access. Secure food access means not only enough food but consistent access to food that is nutritious, affordable, appealing, and practical for consumers.
Significant food access disparities exist across the US as a result of income inequality and systemic racism. Over one-third of US households with income below the federal poverty line face food access challenges. The long history of US racial economic exclusion and structural racism within the food system have contributed to food apartheid. In the US, Black households face food insecurity at triple the rates, and Latinx[ii] households at more than double the rates experienced by white households. Single parents, and especially single mothers, are also disproportionately affected.
IS FOOD SECURITY BASED PURELY ON ACCESS TO FOOD?
Access to food, while crucial, is not the only determinant of food security, nutrition security, or food sovereignty. According to the UN Committee on World Food Security, food security consists of four pillars: availability, access, utilization, and stability. If one of these pillars is absent or insufficient, a community or an individual experiences food insecurity.
- Availability refers to the proximity of purchasable food in a given community or environment. In other words, can food be acquired nearby?
- Access, in the context of these four pillars, means food can be easily found and purchased by everyone.
- Utilization means the available food can be prepared and consumed in a way that contributes to an individual’s health and wellbeing.
- Stability means the other pillars will be consistent—food supplies remain available, accessible, and utilizable on a daily basis, not fluctuating or disappearing for periods of time.
These four pillars have provided a conceptual framework for addressing food insecurity and understanding the social, political, and economic structures that create food-insecure communities. For example, availability is lacking if a community has been targeted by fast food corporations and lacks sufficient access to alternatives, leaving individuals reliant on nutritionally impoverished diets. Access to food can be significantly impaired by high rates of unemployment and underemployment affecting a community, which may make suitable, healthy food unaffordable for some residents. The pillars of both access and utilization can be compromised in immigrant communities when individuals cannot find traditional foods that they are accustomed to preparing and eating—foods that are often nutritionally superior to foods available at accessible prices locally.
However, the four-pillar perspective on food security, adopted by the UN in 2009, no longer matches the full picture. Advocates and policymakers also need to acknowledge growing environmental issues (such as droughts, floods, and heat waves, which can disrupt stability) and widening disparities in the broader global economy and food system (which can impair any of the pillars). Recent critiques of the four pillars encourage adding two more pillars: agency and sustainability.
- Agency refers to the ability of individuals and communities to exercise control over their own solutions, drawing on decades of Indigenous and smallholder farmer advocacy highlighting the need for systemic food system reforms. Focusing on agency ensures that strategies to combat food insecurity and systemic inequities are relevant and meaningful to communities rather than externally imposed.
- Sustainability recognizes the connections between ecosystems, biodiversity, food systems, and livelihoods that contribute to food security. It encourages thinking about food security in terms of whole systems and addressing the ways in which industrial food systems lead to inequitable food access and environmental destruction.
Understanding food access failures, therefore, requires a recognition of the complex, multifactorial nature of food production and consumption. Solutions that focus on singular aspects of food access without examining systemic relationships and acknowledging underlying structures that impact food access run the risk of being at best ineffective and, at worst, harmful.
WHY IS ACCESS TO FOOD IMPORTANT?
Although humans can survive on nutritionally poor foods, nutritionally inadequate diets are linked to numerous chronic health conditions that can worsen quality of life, impair mobility, increase acute illnesses such as cancer, and shorten lifespan. Discussions of food access must involve more than just survival, encompassing access to nutrition that can support healthy, fulfilling lives and lasting community wellbeing.
FOOD ACCESS AND HEALTH
According to the US Centers for Disease Control, poor nutrition is one of the key factors in chronic illnesses like diabetes and heart disease. Frequent consumption of fast foods is linked to cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, certain cancers, and insulin resistance. These diseases occur at higher rates in BIPOC[i] communities due to structural racism affecting food access and income inequality. Food access disparities can combine with barriers to healthcare access and suboptimal medical care due to further institutionalized racism, contributing to a higher risk of diet-related illness and death for affected communities.
Women experiencing food insecurity have worse maternal health and are more likely to undergo complications in childbirth and to have children with low birth weights. Insecure food access can affect children’s growth and development, preventing them from reaching their potential in school and fully participating in social and community activities. In the US, one in six children may not have regular access to sufficient nutritious food to sustain a normal, active lifestyle. Research suggests that children without consistent access to adequate food may be more likely to have anemia, asthma, and oral health problems, to fall behind their peers academically and have lower mathematics and reading test scores, and to develop behavioral issues like aggression and anxiety.
SHOULD ACCESS TO HEALTHY FOOD BE A Human RIGHT?
In 1966 the UN recognized food access as a human right in the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. The Covenant stated that every person should have “physical and economic access at all times to adequate food,” and the UN further noted that lack of food access impinges on other rights, including the rights to health, life, water, housing, and education. “The UN recognizes food access as a human right, and that it impinges on other rights such as health, life, water, housing, and education.”
Key to the UN’s conceptualization of food as a human right was the intersection between food and health. This enabled the idea of food access as a human right to expand beyond simply meaning the food required for survival and instead to encompass the food needed for a sustainable, thriving life. A rights approach to food access also sets the stage for addressing food access at individual, household, and community levels.
Recognition of food access as a human right is one step toward ensuring universal access to sufficient, nutritious food. However, ensuring the right to food also depends on deeper systemic changes to food production systems and solutions to the social problems of income inequality and systemic racism. Achieving food sovereignty and ensuring universal food access requires the establishment of community-led, sustainable, plant-forward food systems. A human rights framework for food access must also promote strategies that will establish and safeguard access to healthy food sources for current and future generations.
In the US, agribusiness-controlled industrial agriculture, supported by pro-corporate federal and state agricultural policies, has weakened food production’s environmental sustainability, intensified exploitation of farmed animals, and increased farming communities’ economic and social vulnerability. Incentives for commodity crop production have driven the development of a US food system based on industrial animal products and highly processed, nutritionally poor foods. Additionally, agribusiness brands have specifically targeted economically vulnerable populations, including low-income and BIPOC communities with intensive marketing for low-nutrition foods such as sugar-sweetened beverages and fast food meals, using marketing tactics borrowed from the playbook of the tobacco industry. Fast food chains with a high proportion of outlets in low-income, predominantly Black communities are 60% more likely to target their advertising toward children than those operating in predominantly white, higher-income neighborhoods.
FOOD ACCESS PROGRAMS
Food access programs provide temporary relief for people experiencing food insecurity but fail to address underlying structural issues or empower communities with the tools to develop and implement their own solutions.
The US government offers assistance to families experiencing food insecurity through a variety of programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) for low-income families and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). Some studies have shown that participating in both programs can provide greater food access security. However, nutrition benefits are not available at all food retail locations, and restrictions on what types of food can be purchased via SNAP (the largest food assistance program in the US) limits recipients’ choices and control over their diets. Other issues with the programs include their failure to account for disparities in food cost among different geographical areas, or the differing nutritional requirements of family members of different ages, as well as their requirement that eligible recipients perform paid or unpaid work for their state in exchange for SNAP benefits. Recipients also face social stigma when using these programs, an additional burden on individuals experiencing food insecurity.
Food banks and community food pantries represent regional food access interventions intended to further assist vulnerable families and individuals. However, they are frequently overburdened and under-resourced in the face of local needs. Food banks and pantries also often depend on local food donations and, therefore, may not offer the most nutritious foods to recipients nor an abundance of culturally appropriate food choices. In recent years, due to the COVID-19 pandemic and increasing levels of food access difficulties among the US population, food banks have come under intense pressure to source more food for larger numbers of people in need. Rising food costs and supply chain disruptions put further strain on food banks and pantries to meet the growing demand.
WHY IS FOOD ACCESS IMPORTANT FOR ADVOCACY ORGANIZATIONS?
Food access is a rights and justice issue that intersects with many other forms of social and environmental advocacy. Inequities within the food system are driven in part by the same unsustainable farming practices that cause harm to animals and to the environment. Agribusiness-led industrial farming of animals and their feed crops contributes to climate change, causes immense animal suffering, and hurts farming communities by reducing the number of farm jobs, paying low product prices to farmers that equate to low wages for farmworkers, and polluting soil, water, and air far beyond the farm. Food access is also affected by structural racism and other forms of entrenched discrimination and is intertwined with other movements for human rights and systemic reform. The industrial food system that negatively impacts animals and the environment also fuels food access disparities that further harm communities already facing overlapping health and social burdens.
Environmental and food justice advocates can find common ground with animal protection advocates in working toward sustainable, ecologically appropriate food systems that broaden food access while leaving industrial animal agriculture behind. Many food system interventions that mitigate climate change restore local control of food systems while safeguarding biodiversity and protecting natural resources and wildlife. Similarly, recognizing that both humans and animals are exploited in the current food system can strengthen many movements adjacent to the food system transformation movement. Growing existing community-based food access interventions like neighborhood food markets that accept SNAP benefits and conversion of urban blight to cooperatively-farmed urban gardens can increase local food access while also working toward systemic plant-forward food system reform.
Food access is an increasingly urgent issue in the US, significantly impacting the health and wellbeing of millions of individuals and their communities. Awareness is growing that food access difficulties are the result of deeply entrenched political, social, and economic patterns. Addressing food access requires bold solutions that empower communities and dismantle systemic inequities in food production and distribution. A shift toward plant-based, ecologically appropriate food production prioritizing the common good offers a powerfully effective pathway to equitable food access for all.
[i] Stray Dog Institute uses the term BIPOC to recognize the lived histories of oppression and resistance experienced by Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. This term is not universally embraced, particularly because it can erase the experiences of individual groups by lumping them together. Additionally, the language of this term reflects the specific historical social context of the United States and may not accurately reflect current or past racial and ethnic descriptions elsewhere. We recognize these drawbacks and use the term BIPOC only when a statement is truly applicable to Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Middle Eastern, North African, East Asian, South Asian, Southeast Asian, and Pacific Islander communities in the US. When an experience or condition is applicable only to a specific group, we use specific rather than general language.
[ii] Stray Dog Institute uses Latinx as a gender-neutral alternative to “Latino” or “Latina” to refer to persons of Latin American heritage living in the US. We use this term although we recognize that it simplifies and homogenizes important cultural variations, and individuals may have their own preferred terminology. We honor the importance of the diverse lived experiences of oppression and unique cultural histories of Latin American countries, regions, and peoples.
 Kathryn M. Janda et al., “Examining Food Insecurity and Areas with Unmet Food Needs during COVID-19: A Geospatial, Community-Specific Approach,” Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development 10, no. 3 (Spring 2021): 55–67, doi.org/10.5304/jafscd.2021.103.017.
 Committee on World Food Security, “Global Strategic Framework for Food Security & Nutrition, Third Version—2014” (UN Food and Agriculture Organization, 2014), www.fao.org/fileadmin/templates/cfs/Docs1314/GSF/GSF_Version_3_EN.pdf.
 See endnote 4.
 See endnote 4.
 Ana Ayala and Benjamin Mason Meier, “A Human Rights Approach to the Health Implications of Food and Nutrition Insecurity,” Public Health Reviews 38, no. 10 (March 2017), doi.org/10.1186/s40985-017-0056-5.
 Punam Ohri-Vachaspati et al., “Child-Directed Marketing within and around Fast-Food Restaurants (390.1),” The FASEB Journal 28, no. S1 (2014): 390.1, https://doi.org/10.1096/fasebj.28.1_supplement.390.1.
 Helen H. Jensen et al., “Investigating Treatment Effects of Participating Jointly in SNAP and WIC when the Treatment Is Validated Only for SNAP,” Southern Economic Journal 86, no. 1 (May 2019): 124–155, doi.org/10.1002/soej.12365.
 Victor Oliveira et al., “Design Issues in USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program: Looking Ahead by Looking Back,” (USDA Economic Research Service, January 2018), www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/publications/86924/err-243_summary.pdf?v=0.