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Understanding Food Insecurity: Human Rights and Social Work Implications


Understanding Food Insecurity: Human Rights and Social Work Implications

The CSWE Commission on Global Social Work Education’s Council on External Relations would like to highlight the importance of the growing global food insecurity issue. It has been estimated that between 2011 and 2013 about 842 million people (about one in eight people in the world) suffered from chronic hunger, a key measure of food insecurity (Food and Agriculture Organization, International Fund for Agricultural Development, & World Food Programme [FAO], 2013). A comparable number of individuals (850 million) were identified as undernourished (FAO, 2013; OECD, 2013). In the United States 14.3% of households experienced food insecurity at some point during 2013 (Coleman-Jensen, Gregory, & Singh, 2014). Although food insecurity occurs in developed as well as developing nations, statistics show that developing nations struggle with more widespread food scarcity. Africa, China, India, Latin America, the Caribbean, and other parts of Asia have consistently had the highest prevalence rates of undernourishment (OECD, 2013).

Food insecurity is the lack of consistent and ongoing access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food needed to maintain a healthy and active lifestyle (World Food Summit, 1996; World Health Organization, 2014; World Food Programme, 2014). Access to nutritious food is a fundamental human right that is a contingent factor in the right to life (Austin, 2010). It is closely intertwined with the right to education, health, water, and adequate housing. Inadequate food affects an individual's ability to exercise other basic human rights (McCain-Nhlapo, 2004; OHCHR, 2010). It also inhibits the ability to live a full and active life by preventing engagement in higher level pursuits, including employment and education. Hunger and lack of access to food also lead to physical illnesses such as diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular diseases, and reduced immune system functioning, and to mental health issues such as higher levels of aggression, depression, preoccupation with obtaining nourishment, and diminished caregiving abilities (Chilton & Rose, 2009; Jyoti, Frongillo, & Jones, 2005; OECD, 2013; Siefert, 2013).  

The Four Components of Implementation of Food Security as Basic Human Rights:

  1. Government accountability
  2. Public participation
  3. Analytic framework that accounts for vulnerability and discrimination
  4. Stronger connections between policies and health outcomes

Role of Social Work:

  1. Provide education to groups about the importance of the food they eat and empower them to protect their rights to food
  2. Advocate on behalf of the vulnerable communities that experience discrimination against their right to adequate food supply
  3. Provide meaningful interventions to vulnerable populations’ food security, such as community garden programs
  4. Build coalitions of multiple stakeholders to address issues of food security globally and locally

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Chilton, M., & Rose, D. (2009). A rights-based approach to food insecurity in the United States. American Journal of Public Health99, 1203.
Coleman-Jensen, A., Gregory, C., & Singh, A. (2014). Household food security in the United States in 2013. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service. Retrieved from
Food and Agriculture Organization, International Fund for Agricultural Development, & World Food Programme (FAO). (2013). The state of food insecurity in the world. The multiple dimensions of food security. Rome, Italy: Author.
Jyoti, D. F., Frongillo, E. A., & Jones, S. J. (2005). Food insecurity affects school children's academic performance, weight gain, and social skills. Journal of Nutrition, 135, 2831–2839.
McClain-Nhlapo, C. (2004). Implementing a human rights approach to food security. International Food Policy Research Institute. Retrieved from
Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). (2013). Global food security: Challenges for the food and agricultural system. Retrieved from
Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR). (2010). Fact sheet no. 34: The right to adequate food. Retrieved from   
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