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Food security and globalization by Dana Williams


Food security is the ability to obtain consistent access to the food needed for a healthy life, acquired by culturally accepted methods. Food security and food access are concepts that deeply affect the standard of living for countries, households, and individuals. Food security needs to be viewed as important elements of the geographical, economic, and political landscape of both developed and developing worlds. Factors that are important to food security are the proximity of grocery stores, available transportation, and affordable and healthy foods. Other factors can manifest in food insecurity, such as processes of suburbanization and disinvestments, agricultural crisis, rapid urbanization and population growth rates, and widespread poverty. Corporate globalization plays a pivotal role for food security and food access today. The reduction of trade protections and tariffs internationally had led to the rapid transfer of products throughout the world, but not at an equal rate or proportion. Developing countries are often forced to be export centers for a small number of crops, leading to internal food security neglect. The related trend of corporatized agriculture has led to a rapid urbanization in the developing world, which places a large strain upon food security. Finally, a sample of Akron, Ohio grocery stores shows the trend of smaller stores being closer to the inner city and having less available food items at higher prices and larger supermarkets being at the periphery of the city with cheaper and more diverse food options.
Keywords: food security, food access, poverty, corporate globalization, grocery stores, supermarkets


In both developed and developing worlds, food security is an important socio-economic indicator of quality of life. It shows the level of ability of people, households, and countries to access and use a very important human right: food.

Although also a rural problem, food security and food access are most deeply manifested as an urban problem, in both the developing and developed worlds. The processes of globalization have complicated the goals of world food security.

To further explore the global relationships of food security/access and its function as an urban socio-economic indicator, and to begin preliminary study for the author's thesis research.

Literature review:
Food security is defined as the ability of a household to obtain an appropriate level of healthy food needed to sustain activity, and to obtain the food in a socially acceptable fashion (Andrews, 1999; Leidenfrost, 1993; Anderson & Cook, 1999). In the context of modern capitalist economies, food access generally indicates issues such as the availability of shopping facilities, available transportation networks, prices and availability of healthy foods, individual knowledge regarding healthy eating, and household budgets (NPI, 2000; Koralek, 1996; Staatz, 1996).

Research questions:

  1. What is the scope of food security/access as an urban issue?
  2. How does food security/access differ from the developed world to the developing world?
  3. In what ways have the processes of corporate globalization influenced and affected the ideas and realities of food security/access?
  4. What is the accessibility of retail food options for people living in Akron, Ohio?

* What is the scope of food security/access as an urban issue?

Food security is an urban problem in a few dimensions: geographically, economically, and politically. Food access is often limited geographically from those who need it, via effects of "the marketplace", which places food out of reach. It is an economic problem because food security hinges on the ability of households to be able to afford the food they need to live healthy lives and are inhibited by restricted and low-incomes (often seen in urban areas). Food security is also a political problem due to the two aforementioned reasons: the effects of capital disinvestments and growing income equality in cities have lead to increasing food insecurity.

The urban poor in the United States often face more extreme food insecurity than do rural poor: rural people often produce their own food, whereas urbanites depend upon food purchases. Cities have gone through complex geographical processes, specifically suburbanization, that have caused the capital disinvestments of inner city areas, leading to more urban poverty and less security and access to food (Cotterill & Franklin, 1995, SFC, 2000).

One result of disinvestments has been a flight of large supermarkets to the suburbs. In leaving the city, these supermarkets created a vacuum of demand that was filled by small-scale grocers, who often have limited selections of food and higher prices. With the limit upon affordable and healthy food, many residents of such areas have to travel long distances to supermarkets in the suburbs or have to shop at understocked, expensive urban grocers. The ability to travel to suburban supermarkets is restricted in inner city areas by a lack of vehicle ownership and poor public transportation. Thus, if a store is not within reasonable walking distance, it is "out of reach" to such people.

Food security is largely an issue of the ability for a community, a household, or an individual to afford the prices of food items available to them at grocery stores. The suburbs feature well-stocked supermarkets with low prices. Therefore, people who live in suburbs (often, but not exclusively, more affluent than those in the inner-city) will have the ability to purchase cheaper food items. Poor people, who live in close proximity to more expensive inner-city grocers, will thus have a limited ability to purchase healthier foods (if they are even available) due to their limited income. Also, they are not often able to easily travel far to a cheaper supermarket (Cotterill & Franklin, 1995).

In a developing world context, economic factors are of even greater significance. Whereas developed world poor at least have food available to them (even if they cannot often purchase much of it), those in the developed world are sometimes so impoverished that they are not able to afford nearly any food. The purchasing power of the average person in Ghana is incredibly lower than someone in the United States. As such, the developing world's people have less ability to financially secure food than those in the developed world (Kent, n.d.).

The political dimensions to food security are intertwined within economic concerns, manifesting themselves in the realm of government and supra-government policy.

The globalization of capital has been facilitated by the economic policies of world governments and international governmental organizations, such as GATT and the WTO. Trade barriers, domestic protections, and other restrictions on the unfettered transfer of capital have been increasingly obliterated. This "liberation" leads directly to the instability of global food markets, weak developing countries and their economies, and the fashion in which they produce their food (PAN, 1999).

Along with the destruction of trade limitations comes the destruction of the "social contract" that developed countries had for their citizens. For instance, the US witnessed an intense restriction of public assistance, such as food stamps in the 1980's, which led to the need for more private and charitable work to feed an increasing number of impoverished people who were also feeling the brunt of other Reaganite policies, such as regressive taxation, increased policing, escalation of the "Drug War", and the plunder of other safety nets for the sake of military spending (Poppendeick, 1997).

In representative democracies (to say nothing of "direct democracy"), government relies upon the consent of the governed, which is a classic Enlightenment ideal. Yet, the poor (in both developed and developing worlds) are predominantly becoming more and more disenfranchised. By being removed from decision-making, the poor lose the ability to secure the things they need for survival. With less and less say in the factors that affect their lives, it becomes difficult to ensure steady work, suitable living conditions, and the amenities needed for family life, primary of which is affordable food.

* How does food security/access differ from the developed world to the developing world?

The term "food security" was coined in regards to the developing world. Thus, it was designed to adequately define the conditions facing developing countries and their food supplies and demands. However, in the developed world there is an increasing gap between the rich and poor that some have called a Third World inside the First World (Poppendieck, 1997; Cook & Brown, 1996). Even though there is food insecurity in both the developed and developing worlds, there are clear differences in the ways that they are used.

Food security and access in the developed world pertains more to income inequalities and grocery store accessibility than on macro-economic and agricultural phenomena. Factors like purchasing power, consumer education, availability of healthy foods, and the proximity of reliable and efficient public transportation have a large role to play in household food security (Weinstein, 2000; TFPC, 1996; Pothukuchi & Kaufman, 1999).

Food security in the developing world is closely linked with issues of women's rights, globalization, famine and climatological catastrophes (monsoons, floods, droughts), conditions of agriculture, the diversification of a countries economy, and household incomes. The developing world features the fastest growing populations on the planet, and also the most rapid urbanization, as more people leave their traditional rural lands for cities. When compounded with pollution, sanitation, and disease, food security has a major role to play in the health and sustainability of people living in developing world urban areas (Ruel, Haddad, & Garrett, 1999; Griffin, 1998).

* In what ways have the processes of corporate globalization influenced and affected the ideas and realities of food security/access?

Globalization has enabled capital to flow with less restriction over the world's borders. It has enabled corporations to expand into multi-national corporations and trans-national corporations. It global capitalism's latest stage of development, a de facto world government has emerged in the form of financial institutions (the World Bank and International Monetary Fund), trade institutions (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and the World Trade Organization), and trans-national corporations.

A result of the corporate globalization is the elimination of previous (if informal) barriers to trade and protectionist policies. For instance, in the developed world laws pertaining to worker's rights, environmental protection, consumer rights, and so forth have been made irrelevant where they have not been made illegal (via the WTO). In the developing world, it has created a "race to the bottom" where all workers are suddenly competing against every other worker in the world for jobs, the end result being a move towards lower wages, worse working conditions and benefits, and more job insecurity (PAN, 1999; Griffin, 1998).

In many developing countries, the once subsistence-based economy has been changed into one that is export-based, often due to cheap, subsidized food from the developed world flooding their markets. With this change, farmers are producing more food for export than for their country's own consumption. The standardization of agricultural production is also driving rural dwellers off their ancestral lands into cities. Thus, more staple foods must be imported and the economy is at the whim of potentially unstable markets - the fewer the economic activities of a country, the less able it is to weather fluctuation of market prices.

Lang (1996) sees the goal of "food security" being in "danger of being rendered meaningless by the economic forces of globalization and by the belief that all human needs are best met by market mechanisms". In the spirit of Lang's perspective and in down-playing the supremacy of market powers, the Liaison Group of Development NGOs of the European Union said at the World Food Summit: "We urge a greater degree of self-reliance in food production, at nation or regional level", and thus not reliance upon trade to provide for food security (Lang, 1996).

* What is the accessibility of retail food options for people living in Akron, Ohio?

A survey was conducted of a sample of Akron grocery stores on August 10, 2001 to determine a rough measure of economic food accessibility for Akronites. The prices found in this sample are combined with the actual geographical locations of the stores and their corresponding neighborhoods.

Out of the ten stores visited, only seven were actually still open for business. This is a rather surprising discovery since store addresses were found in recent phonebooks. Also, one store Save-A-Lot had been listed as Westside IGA. Although these facts may only indicate the inaccuracy of phone books or the fluidity of the food retail market, it also suggests an instability and volatility of the marketplace in Akron.

Even though the sample taken was random, all the stores to be surveyed fell south of Market Street. Two fell at what could roughly be considered the periphery of Akron, with six being much closer to the city's center.

Two of the seven available stores were supermarkets - meaning they had a large amount of floor space, shopping carts, low-prices, and were chain stores. The other five stores could be termed "corner stores" or "community grocers". They ranged in size from 6 moderate sized aisles to three 5-foot long aisles.

Prices were almost overwhelming cheaper at the two supermarkets than at the smaller grocers, with only a few rare exceptions. Predictably, the smaller the store, the less it had. Only three stores had all of the "staple items" the survey looked for (bread, milk, orange juice, eggs, peanut butter, cheese, and fresh fruits and vegetables). The others usually had half of the items available, with one having none of the items.

Geographically, the further the store was from the center of the city (using the Main Street and Market Street intersection) the more likely it was to be a supermarket. The closer it was to the center of town, the more likely it was to be a small, corner store. In fact, one of the closed-down sampled stores at the city edge was a supermarket (Apple's) as were two stores immediately adjacent to a sampled store (Giant Eagle) just down the road. This is expected, since the written literature suggests that supermarkets locate at the periphery of cities, closer to and in suburbs.

Scope and limitations of research:
Some research questions are larger in scope, dealing with the broader and more global nature of food security and food access. The last question deals directly with a specific municipal area.

The limits of this research are in the range of available information and data on the particular questions that the research will ask. The initial questions rely heavily upon previously written materials and established knowledge, while the latter is an objective study of the conditions existing in Akron, Ohio. Thus, the last research question was reliant upon the methodology used and the limitation of time to do a more extensive study (such as thesis research).

The literature review resulted in predictable findings that pointed out the important factors of food security as an urban issue, the key differences in food insecurity between the developed and developing worlds, and the major issues related to corporate globalization and its impact upon food security.

The survey of Akron grocery stores found a distinct difference between the availability of certain staple foods and their prices through out the city. Stores at the periphery (and thus in higher income areas) had more food options at lower prices.


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Andrews, M., Nord, M., Bickel, G., Carlson, S. (1999). Household food security in the United States, 1999. Economic Research Service / USDA.

Cook, J. T. & Brown, J. L. (1996). Children's rights to adequate nutritious food in the two Americas. Food Policy. Vol. 21, No. 1: 11-16.

Cotterill, R. W. & Franklin, A. W. (1995, April). The urban grocery store gap. University of Connecticut: Food Marketing Policy Center, No. 8.

Griffin, D. (1998). Agricultural globalization: A threat to food security? People's News Agency (PNA) Dispatch.

Kent, G. (n.d.). Globalization and food security in Africa.

Koralek, R. D. (1996, November). Conference on access to food: Report of the proceedings.

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New Policy Institute (2000). Food access - whose responsibility?

PAN Asia & the Pacific (1999). Food security versus free trade?

Poppendieck, J. (1997). The USA: hunger in the land of plenty. In Graham Riches (ed.), First World hunger: Food security and welfare politics (pp. 134-164). New York: St. Martin's Press.

Pothuluchi, K. & Kaufman, J.L. (1999). "Placing the food system on the urban agenda: the role of municipal institutions in food systems planning". Agriculture and Human Values, 16: 213-224.

Ruel, M.T., Haddad, L., & Garrett, J.L. (1999). Some urban facts of life: implications for research and policy. World Development, Vol. 27, No. 11: pp 1917-1938.

Staatz, J. M. (1996, June 24-25). Comments on 'improving food access to poor and vulnerable groups'. Department of Agricultural Economics, Michigan State University.

Sustainable Food Center (2000). Access denied.

Toronto Food Policy Council (1996, December). Food retail access and food security for Toronto's low-income citizens.

Weinstein, S. (2000, May). Too little, too late? Progressive Grocer, pp. 113-122.


Geography Seminar