Tackling widespread hunger in cities means listening to the urban poor

As urban food insecurity attracts growing interest in policy debates, Cecilia Tacoli – Principal Investigator of the project How the Urban Poor Define and Measure Food Insecurity and Nutrition – makes the case for ensuring that the views of poor urban residents both inform and shape solutions. This piece has been reposted from the IIED website. Some of the findings of the project are presented in more detail in an open-access article in Environment and Urbanization

For decades, the global debate around food and nutrition security focused mainly on production, but there is now increased attention on consumption.

This reflects two major transformations: the first is that the majority of the world’s population now lives in urban centres and relies primarily on purchasing food to feed itself.

The second is the changing nature of malnutrition. There is a growing number of overweight and obese people and, at the same time,  persistently high levels of undernourishment, especially among children.

Most policies that aim to address food and nutrition security from a consumption entry point focus on access to markets and education about nutrition. While these are certainly important, there seems to be an underlying assumption that urban consumers are a homogenous and relatively affluent group able to make choices when it comes to their diets.

But this ignores the large proportion of urban residents who live in poverty. For them, food is a central concern that is deeply interconnected with concerns about income, shelter and access to basic infrastructure and services.

What do the real experts say?

To effectively address food insecurity and malnutrition, we need to give voice to the urban poor. What are the main challenges to putting food that is sufficient and of the quality they want on the table? What are their strategies to make sure that, come what may, their families have something to eat?

Since no one knows more about these issues than the urban poor themselves, we turned over these questions to our long-term partner, the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights (ACHR). Since 1988, ACHR has brought together professionals, NGOs and grassroots organisations committed to working with the urban poor to ensure their voices are heard so that they are able to influence change in their cities.

Between 2017 and 2019, women from ACHR member organisations in Cambodia and Nepal spoke to women in low-income urban settlements about their struggles to put food on the table. The study found that:

  • Hunger is a real issue for the urban poor: in Cambodia, people may eat just one meal a day of rice with a little fish sauce. In Nepal, women regularly skip meals to feed their families; despite this, the whole family still often goes hungryIn Cambodia, almost half the people who participated in the discussions said they go hungry or eat poorly most of the time. But this level of food insecurity rarely appears in aggregate national statistics.
  • Low and irregular incomes make it hard for the urban poor to eat well: the urban poor use a huge proportion of their incomes to buy food. In Nepal, even the better-off groups said they spend at least half their income on food. And prices get constantly higher.Almost everyone in the group discussions was deeply in debt and, after food, debt repayment is the second largest household expenditure. Despite this, the high cost of borrowing and the fact that incomes are lower than expenditure mean that debts are never fully repaid and are often passed on to the next generation in a form of perpetual bondage.
  • Natural disasters contribute to food insecurity: in Cambodia, floods in the Mekong River areas are becoming more frequent, more severe and lasting longer. The ability to earn money drops drastically, prices soar, water-borne illnesses become endemic and hunger swells.
  • Food safety is a growing concern: there are also huge concerns about the ever-growing use of pesticides and other chemical products. The urban poor cannot afford organic produce, and to avoid stomach upsets they must wash vegetables several times, which is time and energy consuming where access to water is limited.
  • Food is bought daily and in small quantities: inadequate housing that lacks safe storage space and irregular earnings force people to buy their food daily and in small quantities. Small neighbourhood shops offer an accessible service: they stay open until late and sell small portions of cooking ingredients. But this comes at a cost as unit prices are often much higher than in larger retail outlets. However, perhaps the most valuable service offered to poor consumers is short-term credit.
  • Sharing food is a key survival strategy: in Cambodia, the poorest people in the community are invited by their neighbours to share their often meagre meals. As Mary, a fisherwoman in Phnom Penh, observed: “It’s funny, if we all eat together, the amount I cook is always enough. But if we eat separately, it’s never enough!”. In Nepal, the frequent religious festivals are also ways to share what little food is available with relatives and visitors. But where traditional gender roles prevail, women are the first to skip meals for the benefit of their families.

Taking action

For the urban poor, food insecurity is a multi-faceted problem, which is difficult for individuals and single households to address on their own. Policies advocating better access to markets and nutrition education are unlikely to make a dent as they ignore other significant constraints, such as low-income levels, poor infrastructure and inadequate housing.

The communities in this food study agreed that collective action was needed. Existing savings groups have been re-energised and new ones set up with a focus on reducing the burden of debt; and community gardens are flourishing on vacant plots, rooftops and windowsills.

But most importantly, as communities take ownership of issues and develop their own leadership, they become stronger and are able to engage in dialogue with local government to drive deeper change.