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Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Food security - A recent addition to the public health agenda

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Food security has emerged as a major public health policy driver over the last decade, but has its roots entrenched from the 1930s depression years.   Canada’s action plan in 1998 Canada's action plan on food security set out a path that laid out 10 priorities starting with the right to access food, the reduction of poverty, promotion of safe and nutritious foods, safe food, reemphasizing traditional foods, supporting production and sustainability, addressing fair trade, and then wandering into protecting peace as a precursor to food security and finally a mechanism to monitor food insecurity.
The definitions of food security tend to emphasize various components of this agenda.   Two that I share are “Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life”  (Canada’s action plan).   Another commonly referred to by Hamm and Bellows  A situation in which all community residents obtain a safe, culturally acceptable, nutritionally adequate diet through a sustainable food system that maximizes self-reliance and social justice.”

The food security agenda is coming to a critical juncture.  The efforts to meet the diverse agenda have sometimes resulted in feet in two camps.  The food security agenda has migrated to the positive perspective of ensuring an abundance of food, emphasized nutritional value, addressed security through food policy and food coalitions and supported local production.  The food insecurity agenda has looked to community kitchens, good food boxes, poverty reduction, and inequity reduction.   While both are laudable, there are divergent and sometimes conflicting components.   The evidence for supporting the agenda is grounded in improvements in food consumption behaviours, numbers of programs available and numbers of policies implemented.  Less evidence exists in measuring successes in reducing hunger. 

There are valid reasons in this political environment for placing less emphasis on the insecurity and hunger agenda.  There is a dissertation thesis focused on food security agenda development that flagged barriers for emphasizing the hunger component; lack of successfully evaluated initiatives,  volume of NGO activity in addressing insecurity issues, the politics of “poverty”, the tension between universal (aka food security) and targeted (aka food insecurity) approaches, that hunger dilutes the food security agenda, and the poor understanding of the logic connection between food insecurity and food security.  

There are tensions between the food security and food safety components of public health that have not been resolved and result in internal discord.

There are also disciplinary tensions around food security.  The public health nutrition community has led the movement forward.  The institutionalization of the food security agenda means that other public health and non-public health professionals need to be active and own the deliverables. Concurrently public health nutritionists must do what public health has been so successful in accomplishing over the century, that is having allowed for health improvement agendas to move to the mainstream and be integral to business operations in health and other sectors, nutritionists need to step back from owning the issue.  As a broader multidisciplinary team addressing food security, we all need to be thankful for the leadership that has been demonstrated by nutritionists, and we need to utilize the expertise and skills that this group of professionals have brought to the table without discounting their contributions

Food security is here to stay. We are faced with divergent paths that can be followed at this juncture.   Strong and respectful leadership can take the agenda to a new level.   Persistent inconsistencies and disagreements can impede progress.  What will your role be?

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