On Wednesday, I reflected on one of the direct causes of hunger — limited availability of food. Today I continue to preview my presentation for the Hunger in the Coffeelands panel at SCAA by focusing on another separate but related issue — access to food. Even when there is plenty of food available in local markets, poor and marginalized people don’t always have access to it.
Availability and access are related to some degree. The ability of a corn farmer in the Guatemalan highlands to access corn, for example, is a direct function of her ability to grow it (and make it available to herself). But her ability to access other foods — the kinds of foods she needs to thrive but doesn’t and/or can’t grow on her farm — requires income for food purchases. Some of that income will come from the sale of “surplus” corn that she and her family don’t eat. When the income she generates from the sale of her corn and her other livelihoods activities is modest, she may be unable to access the foods she needs.
In fact, a leading obstacle to food access is poverty. In many cases, people can see the food they need in the market, but aren’t able to generate enough income through their own livelihoods activities to afford it. While there are certainly large numbers of chronically poor and highly vulnerable people who fall into this category on a quasi-permanent basis, millions of others move in and out of the ranks of the food-insecure due to shocks to household economies. These shocks can be caused by any number of events, including natural disasters, crop failures or price hikes. The food price crisis of 2008 increased food insecurity in Central America even though there was no shortage of food in the market — the prices simply rose beyond the reach of many families on the edge of poverty.
But it doesn’t take an earthquake or a price crisis to make a family hungry. Unremarkable events can also lead to a drop in household incomes and increase in hunger, like the illness of a family member that imposes real costs (paying for transportation to health-care facilities and the services of health-care providers) or opportunity costs (caring for a family member means no time to work in the fields). These kinds of bumps in the road are the stuff of life for most of us who are drinking specialty coffee in the marketplace. But the people who are growing that coffee at origin often live on the razor’s edge of poverty and any slight shock to their household economy can condemn them to a stretch of hunger from which it is difficult to recover.
What does this mean for our work in the field? It means that even our agriculture programming that is oriented toward increasing productivity is guided by careful market analysis and a goal of increasing household income — income that vulnerable families can use to buy diverse, nutritious food, among other things.