The Science Speaks blog series offers a deep dive into science, technology, and innovation topics on the minds of the public. The series explains focal topics through relatable analogies and asks readers to consider key opportunities, explore avenues for advancing gender equity and equality, and answer the ultimate question: Why should we care?
Scooby-Doo was my favorite cartoon character growing up, but I was constantly annoyed by his human sidekick, Shaggy. Even as a kid, I was bothered by Shaggy’s insistence on eating all the food at the Malt Shop. Surely there were other residents of Coolsville who needed that food more. Nowadays, Shaggy’s relationship with food makes me think about the concept of food security.
is achieved when every person has consistent access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that accords with their preferences and dietary needs and supports an active lifestyle. Women and girls represent 60% of all chronically hungry people in the world, and women are more likely to report food insecurity in about two-thirds of all countries. Enough food is produced globally to feed every living person, so why does food insecurity exist? Let’s start by examining the four conditions that must be met for a community to be food secure.
The first is availability, which is based on food production and distribution and is something Shaggy takes for granted. Both production and distribution will be affected by the , including water scarcity, flooding, heat waves, plant diseases, and the related issue of land degradation. Women are key actors throughout the food supply chain, but they are less likely to own land or have access to agricultural financing and technologies, limiting their capacity to contribute to food availability.
The second condition, access, considers whether food is obtainable based on social and economic factors, like affordability. Shaggy somehow always seems to acquire food free of charge, so he has no issues with access. But in the real world, poverty is a frequent cause of short-term hunger and long-term food insecurity. In many parts of the world, women and girls lack the educational and livelihood opportunities that lead to economic stability, decreasing their food access—especially when prices spike.
Over 800 million people in the world face hunger. Africa and the Middle East are home to the most food insecure countries, where conflict and climate impacts increasingly threaten food availability and access.Dr. Aubrey ParisOn Global Food Insecurity
Utilization, the third condition, examines whether food contributes to the health and well-being of the consumer. Factors influencing utilization include food safety, nutritional value, access to health care, and cultural or personal preferences. Shaggy’s food preferences (i.e., all consumable items under the sun) are well met in every iteration of the Scooby-Doo franchise. Women and girls, on the other hand, are severely impacted by utilization challenges, especially because women are more likely to forego eating nutritious foods in times of scarcity, offering those foods to male family members and children instead.
The fourth and final condition for food security is stability. Stability recognizes that food insecurity can be constant, seasonal, or sporadic (e.g., after natural disasters). Shaggy’s food stability never wavers and, across the board, he’s quite food secure. In this case, as a man living in an economically stable community, the fictional character of Shaggy is actually a reasonable demonstration of reality.
But Shaggy is not the “norm,” as over 800 million people in the world face hunger. Africa and the Middle East are home to the most food insecure countries, where conflict and climate impacts increasingly threaten food availability and access. In the United States, the highest rates of food insecurity exist in Mississippi, Texas, and Arkansas, primarily driven by utilization challenges and rural poverty. Food insecurity can lead to myriad health concerns, and when pregnant women are malnourished, their unborn children are more likely to experience stunted growth. But addressing the many gendered differences in food security will benefit more than just women and girls. Families in women-led households tend to eat more and have higher-quality diets than those led by men with similar incomes. Evidence suggests that women tend to direct the resources they have toward helping their families and communities.
Food security is a focal point of many U.S. Government efforts. The recent delineates a whole-of-government approach that prioritizes, among other things, building climate resilience and addressing malnutrition in women and children. , an interagency initiative to strengthen economic growth, nutrition, and resilience through agriculture, is a key component of this strategy. Emergency and are additional tools implemented across agencies. Action at the State Department ranges from diplomatic engagements, to facilitating partnerships, to funding programs that address barriers to women’s land rights.
Maybe Shaggy should consider a new career path—one that would allow him to use his culinary expertise to promote food security in communities that need it most. What steps can you take to advance food security?
About the Author: Aubrey R. Paris, Ph.D., is a contracted Gender, Climate & Innovation Policy Advisor in the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues (S/GWI). Dr. Paris received her Ph.D. in Chemistry and Materials Science from Princeton University and B.S. in Chemistry and Biology from Ursinus College.