What is food security and what is food insecurity?

Adeng 18, Who is Pregnant, waits with her food aid at distribution point.

You’re hearing a lot about it. But what does ‘food security’ actually mean? 

Empty plates. Empty glasses. Empty stomachs.

Food security is when all people have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food – food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.

For someone to be considered "food secure" means they consistently have enough food available – plus the resources to obtain, use and access food for an extended time.

Food insecurity is the inability to acquire safe and nutritious food. Food insecurity can become acute, or even lead to famine, when there is conflict, extreme weather, or seasonal or cyclical stresses. For the first time in decades, the Global Hunger Index shows that world hunger is increasing.

How many people are hungry in the world?

At least 345 million people across 79 countries are facing acute food insecurity. 50 million people on almost starving. An estimated 193 million people are in urgent need of food assistance in 53 countries alone. Nearly 26 million children under the age of five are suffering from wasting, a form of acute malnutrition which leads to severe weight loss, including five million children at risk of dying from severe wasting.

What causes food insecurity?

When a person cannot afford to buy nutritious food or lives far away, food insecurity gets worse. Climate change is also driving hunger to unprecedented levels. Extreme weather like droughts is more frequent while the economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine have led to soaring food, fuel and fertilizer prices. What's more, children and women are among the most affected by this crisis.

Take the Horn of Africa as an example. Six consecutive rainy seasons have now failed, and the region is now facing its worst drought in 40 years. The situation is particularly dire in the southern Ethiopian zone of Borena. Haiti is another example: the country’s hurricane season, which runs from June to November, limits local crops and forces families to rely on imports to fulfill 60% of their nutritional needs. “We really are at a tipping point for hunger,” says Plan International CEO Stephen Omollo. “If life-saving humanitarian assistance is not urgently stepped up, 300,000 people could starve to death every single day. This means humanitarian organizations are facing an impossible choice between feeding the hungry and feeding the starving. We must act, and we must act now.”

But what does that even mean? Watch this video to find out why girls are at a heightened risk, and then read on to find out what you can do about it.

Plan International is part of the Humanitarian Coalition #TogetherAgainst#Hunger

What are the five phases of food security?

At a time when the world produces enough food to feed everyone, up to 828 million people — more than 10 per cent of the world’s population — still go to bed hungry every night. Women and girls make up 60 percent of acutely food insecure people globally. Food insecurity can transform into famine. This doesn't happen overnight. According to the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, a tool meant to improve food security, nutrition analysis and decision-making, there are five phases:

Phase 1: None or minimal food insecurity: Households can meet essential and non-essential food needs.

Phase 2: Stress: Households are unable to afford some non-food essentials.

Phase 3: Crisis: Food consumption gaps cause malnutrition, or households are having to use assets that are essential to making a living to instead marginally meet minimal food needs.

Phase 4: Emergency: Large food consumption gaps result in high acute malnutrition and mortality, or households are having to sell off essential assets and try all possible coping strategies.

Phase 5: Catastrophe / Famine: At catastrophe / famine, households have an extreme lack of food or other basic needs, even after trying all other possible coping strategies. Famine is eventually declared when malnutrition is widespread, and when people have started dying of starvation because of a lack of access to sufficient, nutritious food.

“Hunger crises should be prevented immediately,” says Dr. Tanjina Mirza, Plan International Canada’s Chief Programs Officer. “If we don’t take action, millions of children will die. Urgent humanitarian action is needed right now.”

Beti, 15, washes dishes outside the family's shelter
15-year-old Beti lives with her grandmother and seven siblings at a resettlement centre in Chiure District, in Mozambique. According to the World Food Program, more than 2.9 million people in Mozambique suffer from food insecurity.

What can we do to reduce food insecurity?

  1. Give families basic food packages to beat critical food insecurity.
  2. Give families direct cash transfers so they can buy the nutritious food they need.
  3. Enroll pregnant mothers and infants in nutrition programs.
  4. Help people participate in economic activities that will give them long-term food security.

Plan International is stepping up our response in Mali, Niger, Sierra Leone, Burkina Faso, Guatemala, Lebanon, South Sudan, Somalia, Zambia, Bangladesh and Mozambique — countries that are bearing the brunt of this global hunger crisis. We’re rapidly scaling up programs such as nutrition support, cash and voucher assistance, food distributions, child protection, school meal programs and livelihoods support.

We’ve also joined forces with the Humanitarian Coalition — 12 Canadian charities collaborating to respond to humanitarian disasters — to address this catastrophe before it’s too late. And we’re calling on world leaders to urgently scale up funding to prevent a global hunger crisis.

But to reach food insecure areas with critical support, we need help from donors urgently.

Donate now to make a difference.

Discover our Global Hunger Crisis Toolkit

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