Food Insecurity and Undernutrition


A state in which all or most people in a group, or population, have limited or no access to enough safe and nutritious food to maintain health, activity, and normal growth. Food insecurity can lead to undernutrition, which is the result of not having enough food or only having access to food that lacks substances important to health and growth.


Prevalence of food insecurity, 2016

Prevalence of food insecurity, 2016
SOURCE: USDA, Economic Research Service using data from 2016 Current Population Survey Food Security Supplement.

2016 Global hunger index

2016 Global hunger index
SOURCE: Deutsche Welthungerhilfe (GHI 2016)

Food comes from three primary sources: crops, rangelands, and fisheries or natural bodies of water, although croplands produce the most food, usually as grains. Crop security is a state of continued availability of enough foods, with enough nutrients, to feed a population. In addition, rangelands must be maintained so livestock can graze. Crops must be available to provide supplemental food to livestock. The oceans and fisheries must support continuance of fish species that provide food for communities.


Food insecurity has been affected, at least temporarily, by natural disasters and large conflicts. After World War II, human rights were emphasized as a global issue and included the individual right to a living and food and medical care to remain healthy. In the United States, the 1960s saw an increase in efforts, including government programs, to address the problem. Some problems with food insecurity and undernutrition were eased by the 1990s, and estimates of undernourishment in the world declined nearly 3% from 2000 to 2013. However, undernutrition was up slightly as of 2018, with new challenges related to poverty and human rights, especially in areas of armed conflicts.


Percentage of children ages 0–17 living in poverty by race, Hispanic origin and family type, 1980–2015

Percentage of children ages 0–17 living in poverty by race, Hispanic origin and family type, 1980–2015
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, Annual Social and Economic Supplement.

Causes and symptoms

Poverty is considered the greatest cause of food insecurity. Poor people have little or no money to buy food or live in such poverty-stricken areas that there is no infrastructure such as water to grow their own food. Poverty affects people in developing and developed countries. Another cause of hunger around the world is political or religious conflicts. When supplies and the ability to get to food or tend crops are cut off, people in conflict zones cannot access food. Others are displaced by local conflicts. Sometimes, economic conditions worsen hunger and undernutrition, making it too expensive to transport food.

Adding to the problem is climate-related changes that affect people's ability to grow food or access water for crops and drinking. Changing climate patterns or annual droughts or floods can ruin crops or make it difficult to get food to rural areas. Natural disasters and armed conflicts can cause famine. Finally, more people are living in cities instead of outlying areas, and urban areas provide less land for growing food. Moreover, in some urban areas, food might be available but it is not affordable or it is not nutritious.


Chronic undernutrition and malnutrition are health issues. When people do not have enough to eat or enough key nutrients needed for growth and energy, they are more vulnerable to disease. Inadequate diet can cause wasting in children. Children cannot develop mentally or physically as they normally would if they lack food and nutrients. Obesity also is a concern, especially among young people. Women of reproductive age can have anemia because of diets low in essential iron, folate, and vitamins. When women who are pregnant or breastfeeding are undernourished, their children die or have slow development. These problems then cycle and repeat. Food security also involves food safety, with a link to adequate safe water and sanitation. If food is contaminated with disease, it can cause widespread illness and even death. Finally, the link of food insecurity to obesity is an ongoing, global problem. Obesity adds to risk of many diseases such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and problems with joints.


Department of Public Social Services HSA II In-Charge Angelo Salazar,

Department of Public Social Services HSA II In-Charge Angelo Salazar, speaks at the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health announcement of new data on food insecurity in Los Angeles County at Northgate Gonzalez Market on Thursday, Sept. 28, 2017 in Los Angeles. Data released today shows that food insecurity affected one out of three Los Angeles County low-income households. Among those food insecure households, more than 67% were Latino.
(Danny Moloshok/AP Images for Los Angeles County Department of Public Health)

Pubic health role and response

The right for people to have food and nutrition security is basic to public health. Efforts to improve food security involve individuals, communities, governments, and international cooperation. Reducing poverty is one way to improve food availability, as are long-term solutions in areas in which people experience chronic malnutrition. Supporting growing more food locally (with volunteers, making water available, and using sustainable techniques) can increase access to nutritious food. Reducing food waste by redistributing supplies also can address food insecurity. Improved measures of undernourishment and food insecurity can help public health officials identify target areas for improvement and monitor interventions that are successful. Some goals of the United Nations and others include increasing investments in nutrition-related goals. Public health agencies help with efforts to improve food security and monitor diseases and conditions related to food, such as food-borne diseases or obesity.

United Nations Sustainable Development Goals

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are part of a 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, a plan adopted by world leaders to end poverty and inequality around the world and address climate change. The leaders developed a total of 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) with overlapping targets and purposes, nearly all of which could have some effect on food insecurity (such as infrastructure and roads to transport people or food). Among these goals are several that support improving food security:


Nutrition problems and food insecurity require addressing food consumption, distribution, and production. Human rights efforts and international laws and accords can help improve food security for many regions of the world. Efforts such as the UN SDGs approach crop and food security from many angles, including goals regarding poverty, human rights, and climate change. The results were not expected to be complete, however, until 2030. Organic agricultural practices and small urban farms are on the rise, especially in the United States. Organic farming is much friendlier to the environment and produces healthier, safer food. Further, many organic farms operate locally and sell to their local communities instead of shipping to large chains. The scope of the food insecurity problem is such that food insecurity and undernutrition may never be truly eradicated, but improvements can be made in communities, countries, regions, and with specific populations to improve health and human rights.

See also Climate change ; Famine .



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United Nations, 7 bis, Avenue de la Paix, 1202, Geneva, Switzerland, 41 (22) 730-8636, .

World Food Programme, Via Cesare Giulio Viola 68, Parco de Medici, Rome, Italy, 00148, 39 (06) 65131, .

Teresa G. Odle, BA, ELS

Imbalances and deficiencies in the nutrients and energy individuals get through food and drinks. Malnutrition can include undernutrtion and wasting.
Organic farming—
Growing crops or food from livestock without using pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and growth hormones, along with other efforts to farm sustainably.
The ability of Earth systems, including economies and cultural systems, to survive and adapt to changing environments.
Low weight for a person's height, often involving wasting away of fat tissue and low muscle tissue.
  This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.