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Gendered dynamics of food security and food access by Dana Williams



This is a literature review of the gendered aspects of food security and food access throughout the world. Food security is defined as "a situation that exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life" (FAO, 2001a). Leidenfrost notes that at a minimum, food security should also include an assured ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways (e.g.; without resorting to emergency food supplies, scavenging, stealing, or other coping strategies)" (1993, 2nd definition). Leidenfrost's definition has profound sociological implications, particularly the gendered ramifications for many women who are prime recipients of emergency food services.

Throughout the world women play a primary role in food production, food acquisition, and food preparation. They also hold key roles as the designator of children's diets, putting them in an important position as nutritional educators.

This paper will go through some of the diverse literature relating to the many dimensions of food security that are directly or indirectly gendered. The term "gendered" refers to an outcome that places one sex at a different vantage point than another; the methods, processes, and reasons for these differences usually stem from gender inequalities. Since gender is as incredibly multifaceted as food security, the topics selected miss quite a large portion of possible understanding between the two fields of study.

The role of gender in international food security and international development is explored, as is the role of women in the household role of food managers in the so-called "developing world". In the US and other industrialized countries, food security also has an agricultural role (explored in the case of CSAs), but more importantly in the grocery store and the household.

Literature Review


Developing world
The developing world has a higher percentage of women involved in agriculture than in the developed world. Thus, economic and political instability, financial structural adjustment programs, and climatological and environmental problems have disproportionately affected women.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (2001b), the division of labor between men and women differs internationally, from region to region. But it is men who usually plow the fields and drive farm animals, while women usually do most of the sowing, weeding, applying fertilizers and pesticides, threshing, and harvesting. Women's work is also increasing due to migration by men, placing even more burden on women. This is called the "feminization of agriculture", which has been spurred by growth in the number of female-headed households. The feminization of agriculture is akin to the "feminization of poverty", where the gap between men and women caught in the grasp of poverty has continued to increase (Division for the Advancement of Women, 2000).

Women are on average much less educated than men, are less likely to own land, and have less access to credit and loans. Due to these structural limitations, women are less mobile, empowered, and privileged, restricting their abilities to provide household food security (FAO, 2001b).

The nutrition and health status of women, men, and children can be improved by reaching greater gender equality and food security. Nutrition and food safety education directed at women can help to prevent illnesses, disabilities, and premature deaths (FAO, 2001b).

Developed world
In the US, agriculture is a part of food security primarily where a household has contact with grown food, such as through private or community gardens. Another example is community-supported agriculture (CSA), which is a method for growing food locally to serve members of a particular farm who contribute through fiscal support or manual labor. The food is shared communally, while the risk is distributed amongst all the members, taking the burden off one individual farmer. It is a deliberate attempt to supply food requirements from outside the corporate-dominated food system.

DeLind and Ferguson (1999) studied an individual CSA in Michigan where they noticed that many CSA members happen to be women. Female involvement in CSAs, as a social movement, can be viewed in terms of four different explanatory frameworks: ecofeminist perspectives, analyses of gender roles in society, situated knowledge approaches, and empowerment paradigms.

Ecofeminism views women and nature as symbolically related, social-role analysis considers the roles which all are socialized to fulfill and that guide our actions, situated knowledge is the everyday activities and life experiences that ground analysis, and the empowerment paradigm is where women are social and political activists working for social and environmental justice. Through these frameworks the high-levels of female participation in CSA can be partially explained (DeLind and Ferguson, 1999).

They found that men and women had different reasons for joining CSAs. Men joined because they wanted to make friends, improve themselves, and learn interpersonal and farm-related skills. Women were attracted to the peace and tranquility of the farm, and saw the farm as a place from which to build community. Women were more likely than men to emphasize the importance of using local wisdom, improving nutrition, promoting rural-urban linkages, reestablishing the idea of the commons, and encouraging democratic decision-making (DeLind and Ferguson, 1999).

CSAs are generally composed of white middle-class people. Men tended to note this homogeneity as an asset for a CSA, at least initially, while women expressed more interest in overcoming the homogeneity and creating more diversity within the CSA. These women saw diversity as a means to strength, wisdom, and community (DeLind and Ferguson, 1999).


In the US and other developed countries, people often get their food from grocery stores, as opposed to CSAs, personal gardens, or community gardens. Because of this fact, it is important to appreciate the function that grocery stores fulfill and the impact they have in relation to gender.

Tolich and Briar (1999) noted informal gender divisions in what appeared to be a relatively flat hierarchy for supermarket employees. During their study of 65 supermarket employees in urban Northern California, they questioned employees with near identical job descriptions that do different tasks that were primarily based upon their gender.

Male clerks were often assigned to do things that took them throughout the store, while female clerks played the role of "emotion management" by dealing heavily with customers at checkout registers. As a result, males enjoyed considerable variety in their work, gained knowledge of the store's stock thus leading to faster promotion, and were able to avoid interaction with customers. Females, on the other hand, were stuck at the checkout registers, thus were physically confined, closely monitored and supervised, and emotionally drained (Tolich and Briar, 1999).

It is usually store managers who are "responsible for the gendered allocation of work via the scheduling lists" (Tolich and Briar, 1999, 132). Because of this allocation by managers-who are usually acting upon their own gender-perceptions and not any actual store policy-women work in emotional and auxiliary roles, thus freeing men to do varied and more interesting work. Therefore, even though job descriptions may be the same for both female and male supermarket employees, task segregation exists, thus seriously affecting quality of working life. Because these practices are essentially the extension of gender discrimination from society into the workplace, the authors suggest that ending discrimination will be more difficult that commonly supposed (Tolich and Briar, 1999).

It is generally accepted that women do more shopping than men in the US, leading to the understudy of the role of men and shopping. Dholakia, Pedersen, and Hikmet (1995) studied the roles of married men and grocery shopping in the US. Not surprisingly, the shopping responsibility of the wife is highest when she is a homemaker (71.3 percent primarily responsible). When the wife is employed, retired, or "other", the husband has the primary grocery shopping responsibility 15 percent of the time. Interestingly, when the married male shopper is primarily responsible for groceries, they reported enjoyment of the activity, while shopping enjoyment is lowest amongst males whose spouse is the primary shopper.

Most married men disagreed that shopping is primarily a woman's responsibility, regardless of their own shopping responsibilities. However, the disagreement was stronger based upon their own involvement in the shopping-stronger disagreement if they were primary shoppers and less strong if their spouse is the primary shopper. Also, the man felt more appreciated by his family when he does the shopping, more so when he is the primary shopper than when his spouse is. The authors observed that married men who carry the primary responsibility for grocery shopping break the gender stereotypes in terms of their beliefs and behaviors, and feel more support and appreciation from the family for doing so. Thus, even though vast changes have not occurred in whom does shopping within a family, this study suggests that attitudinal changes have occurred which should lead to greater behavioral changes in the future (Dholakia, Pedersen, and Hikmet, 1995).

DeVault (1991) puts grocery shopping in the larger context of "provisioning". Other means of provisioning can include getting food from a garden, or trading for food with others. She states, "family members who do not share the provisioning work often do not understand it" (DeVault, 1991, 75). If other members do not participate in selecting purchases, paying for them, taking them home, and putting them away, they are less likely to prepare the meals as well, because they need to be competent and efficient at planning, monitoring, and remembering the food supply in a household. This indicates a correlation between women doing most of the grocery shopping and also doing most of the food preparation and cooking.

Nutrition and health

After acquiring the food, it is prepared, and the ways in which this is done also affect food security. The nutrition of the food selected and prepared, and the resulting health of the family eating is important to study.

Developing World
Kennedy and Peters (1992) studied the prominence of income and gender of household head in two developing African countries-Kenya and Malawi-and suggested how they translate into household food security and child nutrition. Developing countries are seeing an increase in the number of female-headed households, for a variety of reasons. Other studies have shown that women tend to spend a larger portion of incomes on food compared to men. Not only did female-headed households allocate more income to food, but also 25 to 50 percent less on alcoholic beverages than male-headed households. Thus, the degree of control women have in household income can have an important impact upon household caloric consumption and nutrition.

The study found that female-headed households were more likely to have low weight-for-age, low levels of malnutrition, and a higher number of eating occasions than male-headed households. Income is a major determinant for household food security, but so is the level of income controlled by women in a family-with food security increasing if a woman heads the household. Interestingly, at very low-income levels, female-headed households were able to provide equal or better levels of nutrition than wealthier male-headed households (Kennedy and Peters, 1992).

Developed World
The reality of the developing world does not necessarily translate into the developed world, where income and class play a much stronger role. Hupkens, et al. (1998) explored the food rules defined by mothers in three Northern European countries-the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany-and witnessed the importance of class for child nutrition.

Eating behavior is largely learned behavior, thus parents-and especially mothers-have an important role to play in what children eat, by the rules that parents ascribe for their children's eating habits. Higher-class parents employed more rules and more restrictive rules than lower class parents who were more flexible and made rules that covered fewer foods. All mothers agreed that taste and health were important criteria in food choices, but their emphasis differed based upon their class. Lower-class families placed taste as a more important criterion, while higher-class families valued health as a more important consideration (Hupkens, et al., 1998).

Due to income restrictions, low-income mothers did not have the same ability to risk purchasing foodstuffs that may be rejected by their partner and children, thus they commonly stuck with foods that are preferred, yet not necessarily the healthiest. Higher-class mothers can give their children healthier diets since they have more flexibility to afford more expensive foods (Hupkens, et al., 1998).

Adults, of course, usually select the food that they choose to eat, regardless of any authoritarian dictate. Which foods are chosen, how they are chosen, and why they are chosen have specific gendered dimensions and patterns, especially in the western industrialized countries. A Finnish study (Roos, et al, 1998) of food-eating behavior found that there were vast differences between men and women. Women followed nearly every nutritional recommendation closer than their male counterparts. They had higher percentages that were in line with guidelines for the following criteria: fat, milk, break, vegetables, fruit, and an index of the overall guidelines. Men only met one criteria closer than women, that being the "potato" (or starch) requirement of the diet. Pasta, rice, and other starches were not considered, and could possibly skew this criterion.

Marital status also resulted in having a stronger adherence to dietary guidelines. Men "gain a greater health advantage from marriage than women do" (Roos, et al, 1998, 1527), likely due to women controlling family health matters more than men and thus women do not gain as much from marriage in this respect. Also, for women only, having young children was positively associated with food behavior-but not for men who were statistically similar regardless of whether they had young children (Roos, et al., 1998).

Many reasons partially explain why women tend to follow dietary guidelines closer than men: greater health consciousness, stronger familiarity with guidelines due to reproductive health counsel, socialization and adult role patterns based upon gender, and a stronger concern for their appearance (Roos, et al., 1998).

Some dynamics of gendered food choice determinants have been shown to have rather harmful effects, where the number of primarily "young women who meet the diagnostic criteria for the conditions of anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa is increasing" (Dixey, 1998, 35). The obsession with food and not-eating, dieting, and weight-loss typify the experiences of many women, that it has now reached a point where there are many studies that show that dieting is a "normal" eating style for women (Dixey, 1998).

Dixey (1998) cites a study that found that both younger females and adult women claim they diet for reasons of body image rather than health, as others studies have shown that the images of women over time in women's interest magazines have gotten slimmer over time. She says that instead of individualizing the problem by terming these food problems as "eating disorders" it would be better to conceptualize it as society's disordered view of women, the body, and food. Thus the influence of society and body image is played out in the women's relationship with food.

Akin to the issues of "eating disorders" are other health related problems that can stem from malnutrition. Dietary imbalances and excesses are related to certain diseases - such as heart disease, some cancers, stroke, and diabetes. These now rank among the top causes of illness and death in the US. Health differences between the poor and affluent are "almost universal for all dimensions of health whether it be undernutrition or diet-related chronic disease" (Nitzke and Phillips, 1998, Problem section, para. 8).

Another important health aspect is obesity, which also has to do with body image. Townsend, et al. (2001) found a positive correlation between food insecurity and overweight women. Since food insecurity is also related to income level, there is a correspondingly higher rate of overweight people who are poor. Because overweight people are thought to overeat and because hunger is viewed as inadequate food supply, it seems paradoxical that inadequate food supply could cause one to be overweight.

In order to explain this, it must be understood that food secure women may voluntarily restrict their food intake, whereas food insecure women may have their food intake involuntarily restricted-due to insufficient resources to access food. The results of their research suggest that overweightness is related to involuntary, temporary food restriction. Therefore, overeating by food-insecure families when food is plentiful (when food stamps or money is available) followed by periods of involuntary food restriction. This erratic eating pattern could result in gradual weight gain over time (Townsend, et al, 2001).

Food rights
Finally, food may be seen as a human right, one that has explicit gender dimensions. Van Esterik (1999) explores the various dimensions of food and ethics, explaining that there are three levels in which people's food rights can be viewed: the "right to be fed" as a patronizing and passive view, the "right to food" is a product oriented view, and the "right to feed" suggests active agency by people. Along this spectrum, the "right to be fed" can be seen by "emergency food sources" and charitable gifts by people providing and feeding for others. The "right to food" is strictly the idea that people should be able to access actual food items, specifically tangible things, for instance in the case of food aid, food distribution, and food banks. The "right to feed" states that people should be able to eat when they want, be able to share with others, and have all the tools necessary to provide for one's self and family.

These three dimensions are used as the backdrop to explain the interaction of women with food rights. A recurring theme present in the first two dimensions is the oft-insinuated idea that women should receive food specifically (or indirectly) because they bare children, care for children, and are usually the feeders of children. Van Esterik states that while those are important roles, women have their own innate, personal food rights (adequate nutrition, proper quantity and quality of food, etc.) that should be unique and their children should not be any more a factor in their food rights than anything else. Additionally, children should also have unique food rights, regardless of their parent's food rights (Van Esterik, 1999).

Food rights for children are viewed as less disruptive and threatening of the status quo than are supporting the food rights of women, yet hunger is still a much safer issue for discussing and gaining more women's rights than are other issues, such as abortion (Van Esterik, 1999).

Women do have higher rates of malnutrition and the author stresses using a gendered perspective to understand this. Girls and women can be more vulnerable to malnutrition because of the discriminations they face in society, including sub-standard access to food and health care, rape, early and closely spaced pregnancies, and higher nutritional requirements during pregnancy and lactation (Van Esterik, 1999).

When food is isolated from its context of consumption and production, it is more easily depoliticized, which enforces the logic of using food as a weapon-which damages women and children the greatest. Thus, hunger must be considered a form of violence and be explored as a violation of human rights (Van Esterik, 1999).

The right to food is specified in Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, and ratified by 118 states (although the US has yet to ratify it). Even if it did, it would still be up to the government to enforce and implement it. The claimed reasons for its non-ratification include "the right to food is considered too vague, too 'cultural' and too costly to implement and enforce compared to civil and political rights" (Van Esterik, 1999, 226). Still, food security may be viewed as a matter of political will, not a subject of economic cost-benefit analysis.

Societal structure and norms greatly impact the relationship of women and food rights. Food practices include a wide spectrum, from the productive and reproductive, public to private spaces, and are a part of the formal and informal economy. Van Esterik notes that from the perspective of food, "women are both vulnerable and powerful, victimized and empowered" through food (Van Esterik, 1999, 230). Due to these dichotomies, it is vital to note that women are most likely to be responsible for feeding their families and least likely to be involved in shaping the policies that deal with the food systems that effect them (Van Esterik, 1999).

Still, Van Esterik writes with a feminist perspective of the positive contributions by women in relations to food: "Cooking, feeding, and eating are the metaphors for interdependence, nurturance, mutual support, and pleasure in a world full of metaphors for independence, greed, ambition, and pain" (Van Esterik, 1999, 231).


Food security and its many aspects appear to be a very gendered issue. Ranging from public to private spheres, the developing world to the developed world, and within every aspect in the chain of food consumption (from agriculture to cooking) there are gender differences and varying roles for food security.

Men are seen as "bread-winners", whereas women are predominantly the selectors, shoppers, preparers, and cooks. Women have a more intimate relationship with agriculture, especially in the developing world. In the developed world, women primarily do the shopping, and distribution of tasks by grocery store workers is highly gendered. They often design the diet of their families and have an adversarial relationship with their own diets, often due to society's body image standards. As a right, food security is a concept that, if not fulfilled or enforced, can be disproportionately detrimental for women.


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Sociology of Gender