What is food access?

Access to food refers to our ability to source good, quality food — food that's filling and adequate for our individual needs. For many, this means it's fresh and minimally processed, and good for the community and planet.

Access to food is determined by space and money, and determines one's food security and quality. The World Health Organization considers access to safe and adequate food a basic individual right — but still, over 37 million Americans report being food insecure.

What is food insecurity?

If you have not one, but multiple, well-stocked grocery stores within walking (or driving) distance, and have the financial fluidity to purchase whatever kind of food you want, whenever you want — imported or local, organic or conventional, in-season or not — you experience a high level of access and security to food.

If a community's nearest affordable and adequate food option is over a mile away — or 10 miles away in rural areas — the area is deemed a food desert, and those living in/near it, to have low food security. If a community's food options are severely limited to fast food chains, liquor stores, and/or convenience stores, that is a food swamp, and those living near it are also food insecure.

You would think then, that people living in rural, crop-rich areas, who have devoted their lives to the growing and harvesting of food, would have the highest access to the best, freshest food, and hence the most security. Meanwhile, you would expect that people living in densely populated urban areas, subjected to marked-up costs for fresh foods (due to transportation, rent, handling, storage), would be the ones with the lowest access, quality, and security. But this is not always the case.

Three contradictions of food insecurity

1. Socioeconomic status is not always an indication of food security

But money certainly does play a large part. People furthest below the poverty line find the highest percentage of their income going towards purchasing food (75 percent, typically), so simply increasing access to food generally does little to combat their food insecurity. Instead, offering greater financial compensation or higher incomes gives people the support and protection to be self-sufficient.

For a feature on hunger in America for National Geographic, reporter Tracie McMillan met with the Jeffersons in Houston, in their four-bedroom home that houses up to fifteen family members: "Though all three adults in the household work full-time, their income is not enough to keep the family consistently fed without assistance. The root problem is the lack of jobs that pay wages a family can live on, so food assistance has become the government's — and society's — way to supplement low wages."

Families that routinely go hungry can also be owners of cars (a necessity in many suburban and rural communities), toys (often available at yard sales and second-hand stores), and televisions (purchasable on installment plans).

2. People can struggle simultaneously with food insecurity and obesity

To reiterate, good food security requires access to food that's not just filling, but also adequate for their needs. When food options are limited, disrupted, or unpredictable, it can be impossible to find sustenance that checks both boxes.

Melissa Boteach, vice president of the Poverty to Prosperity task force of the Center for American Progress, outlines how these contradictions are actually related: "Hunger and obesity are two sides of the same coin… People mak[e] trade-offs between food that's filling but not nutritious and may actually contribute to obesity."

3. People living in agricultural hubs can still be food insecure

Yes, even the people at the root of the food system can still have problems accessing it. Meredith Leigh, an ex-farmer, explains this paradox: "Farmers within commodity markets and agricultural frameworks are motivated to plant the most acreage possible in the highest price commodity crop. These communities might be seeing an influx of cash, but that cash doesn't go to buying nutrient-dense food. It usually goes to buying processed, cheap food, because all production prioritizes crops that are either exported or used by the processed-food industry.

"There may be farmers growing nutrient-dense, high-quality foods, such as diverse vegetables, and have support for smaller economic frameworks such as CSAs or direct-to-consumer sales. But they are so high-risk that they may lack the time or the [financial] security to feed themselves well."

This story was originally published on Food52.com: The ABCs of Good Food: A Is for Access