Zero Hunger

Living Edition
| Editors: Walter Leal Filho, Anabela Marisa Azul, Luciana Brandli, Pinar Gökcin Özuyar, Tony Wall

Food Donation and Food Drive: Strategies to Achieve Zero Hunger

  • Michele F. FontefrancescoEmail author
Living reference work entry


A food drive is a charity initiative aimed at collecting nonperishable food items to stock and distributed directly or through food banks, soup kitchens, and other charitable institutions to people in need. The initiative is part of a broader system of collection and redistribution that involves a plurality of actors of the voluntary sector. The initiative is commonly employed in Western countries and used to tackle urban poverty as well as to contribute to hunger relief in developing countries or in case of humanitarian crises. Food drives contribute both tangibly to UNSDG 2 “Zero Hunger,” by collecting and redistributing food, and intangibly, by raising awareness on issues, such as urban poverty, unbalance food access, and famine relief.


Poverty and Food Access

Poverty is a debated concept in the social sciences (Villemez 2000). It is related to the condition of lack of material possessions needed to reach “the minimum necessaries for the maintenance of merely physical efficiency” (Rowntree 1901, p. 86), as well as the precluded access to social services and opportunities, such as education, medical care, and housing (Sachs 2005). While whether poverty line should be considered in absolute or relative terms is still an ongoing debate (Citro and Michael 1995; Deaton 2005; Pradhan and Ravallion 2000), the concept points out at the socioeconomic structure of a community and identifies the condition of marginality lived by the less affluent members of the society, those who are in the lower tail of the income distribution.

Since the pioneering studies of Booth (Gillie 1996), it has become common to associate poverty with particular economic thresholds, called poverty lines. They are linked to the person’s consumption or income: e.g., in 2015, the World calculated the International Poverty Line in 1.90$/day of person’s consumptions. Accordingly with the International Poverty Line, in 2015 over 702 million people were living below poverty line, in a condition of extreme poverty (World Bank 2015). Most of them lived in Sub-Saharan Africa (347.1 million people), and in South Asia (231.3 million), although the condition can be observed in all parts of the world, including developed countries.

Overall, since the second half of the nineteenth century, the world population under the poverty line is reduced, thanks to technical and economic progress (Bourguignon and Morrisson 2002; Roser and Ortiz-Ospina 2018). Western countries were the ones that most benefited from this trend (Roser and Ortiz-Ospina 2018). However, extreme poverty is still a tangible reality in those countries, in particular in urban centers (Lucci et al. 2018; Mingione 1996; Wacquant 2002). Despite a general lack of attention of the public debate about the issue, poverty in the Western countries has been a rising phenomenon since the outbreak of 2008 economic crisis (Cuadrado-Roura et al. 2016; Hochstenbach and Musterd 2018), making food access a relevant and cogent issue for a widening sector of urban population in the USA as well as in Europe. This is particularly urgent if we consider the cultural history that underpins the configuration of the urban space as an alternative and, somehow, an antithesis of the countryside (Williams 1973).

Since the antiquity, cities were created as bounded and fortified space. The wall divided the city from the countryside. The division was spatial but also functional, since the wall divided the space intended as residential and manufactory area (the city), from the one intended to produce raw materials, among which food (the countryside). As the seminal work of Mumford (1973) pointed out, the urban space developed as the space of technology in contraposition with nature. This particular history explains the marginalization of the spaces intended for agricultural production within the city. Especially in modern times, agriculture is conducted only in interstitial spaces, such as backyards or urban gardens, which are used mostly for private use, e.g., a kitchen garden.

The city, thus, developed as a human space that relied on the countryside for meeting its needs in terms of fresh food products, while it concentrated all the activities concerning food processing and transformation mostly within its borders. From this articulation derived a particular food system that had the market as the main interface for food provision of the urban dwellers (see Fig. 1).
Fig. 1

Food provision system in a city – countryside perspective

From the appeal of Mumford (1973) about the need for a more balanced organization of the urban space, much has been done in creating greener cities. However, the city food systems are still heavily relying on markets for food provision. Thus, when market access is precluded due to the economic conditions in which the individual is, the very access to food turns to be precarious. Therefore, the worsening economic condition in the USA as well as in Europe after 2008 has made access to food an open issue to a rising sector of society.

Food Donation in an Historic Perspective

In case of limited access to the market, individuals tend to limit the variety of foods served to the most convenient, limit portion sizes, and skip meals (Oldewage-Theron et al. 2006). Moreover, along with side formal practices, they can adopt informal strategies of food procurement that encompasses picking through trash for scraps, and visiting food banks and soup kitchens. In this context, food donation comes back to play a crucial role in modern society, as it played in the past.

If we consider the urban context, food donation represents a fil rouge that ties together present practices with those experienced in the early urban civilization in the Tigris and Euphrates rivers valley and on the Mediterranean Sea coast. From Babylon to Rome, for over 12,000 years, food was donated by the ruling elites (e.g., king, nobles, priests) to the poor for celebrating religious festivities or important political events. Donations marked the exceptional aspect of the feast (Wilk 2009), but played a fundamental political role in preventing social unrest and upheaval caused by the limited access to food that characterized the everyday condition lived by common people in the early cities (Scott 2017). Despite the complex foodscape that distinguished Bronze Age civilizations (Pokutta 2017), bread and fermented beverages were the most common goods donated in these occasions, thanks to their availability, convenience, and relatively long shelf life. In particular, in Rome, since the late republican period, food donation had the most significant role, both as a political tool used by ruling elites to appease the masses but also as a systemic strategy to counter the overall fragility of the urban food system (Stambaugh 1988) which saw large part of the population with scarce access to food from the markets (Holleran 2012) and very limited possibility of cooking (Kaufman 2006).

Food donation continued during the medieval and modern times. Churches as well as civil institution organized food collection for the poor during the year, in particular during winter (Camporesi 1995). Also, in this case, bread was one of the key products people donated; however, also other staple foods were used, such as eggs, dried fruits, meat, or cheese (Cuisenier 1993, 1995; Grimaldi 2012). Some of these rituals are still practiced and represent an interesting ethnographic source to understand their original structure and function. An example is provided by the ritual of Cantè j’Euv, singing the eggs, in Italy. This is a ritual food collection organized in the last 2 weeks before Easter. It was a common ritual practiced by many communities in the vast hill region on the right side of the Po river that goes from the Alps to the Apennines between Piedmont and Lombardy. Nowadays, only a few villages, nearby Alba, continue the tradition. The collection is organized by a group of young people, originally only men: “a traveling group of “agents”, as Pietro Clemente (1982) calls them, coming from specific social strata who visit the families living on the farms scattered on the hills” (Grimaldi 2012, p. 86). The people had to move during the nights before Easter from hamlet to hamlet, from farm to farm, knocking at the door of the houses and asking for eggs. “In the evening, the approaching crowd sings and dances to popular melodies announcing to the families and the land that the ritual action about to take place will continue for most of the night, and that food collecting could soon be at the door of each silent farm. Once at the farmyard, a ritual action intended to gain access to the house accompanies the singalong. If admission is refused by the occupants, deaf to the melodic invitations and ‘expressive performance’ (Clemente 1982) coming from the group, the rite stops with some final cursing verses from the food collectors, whose identities are concealed by the darkness, which protects them from the people behind closed windows. The sung curse thus becomes collective disapproval of the unritual, selfish and miserly behavior of the farming family. […] On the other and, if alms collectors are welcome ‘before the moon goes down and we have to go’, as the singing invitation to open the door and offer the eggs goes, the members of the farming family in turn become actors and they start talking or singing with the guests, who besides the offering of eggs are partaken of food and drinks. While taking their leave, people in the group sing a song of thanks to the hosting family.” (Grimaldi 2012, pp. 86–88).

The collection ended on Good Friday night. All the eggs collected were stored by the young people in their home and were not used until Easter Monday lunch. On that day, the people who organized the collection met in the city center, ideally in the main square of the village. There they arrange a meal for all the members of the community, and in particular poor people and the ones that lived far away from the town center. All the eggs were used to prepare omelets that they gave as a present to all participants.

Food Donation and Its Anthropological Meaning

Cantè j’Euv is just one example of the practices that marked the development of modern urban space. From antiquities to the present, this continuity of practices shows the social relevance of unequal food access and how the issue was never completely resolved. Thus, food donation has played a relevant role in the life of the community; a significance that opens questions concerning its anthropological meaning. In today’s public debate, a food donation is generally portrayed positively, as a particularly timely and altruistic act aimed at supporting local communities, relieving poverty and reducing environmental impact. However, this action is far from being a new strategy to cope with hunger as much as its social meaning is distant from being so linear.

These early experiences of food donation highlight some of the most significant meaning of food donation. First of all, it is a political tool used to maintain social order, as it happened in ancient Rome. On the other hand, it is a form of economic redistribution aimed at resolving some of the structural deficits of the urban food system. Folkloric evidence, such as the ones provided by Cantè j’Euv, show food collection is a total social fact (Mauss 2007) that mobilizes the entire community with a crucial role for supporting social cohesion. In fact, the collections and then the redistributions reconnect all the members of the community and, despite any possible economic and social difference, create a sense of belonging and participation among all the people of the town.

To this first array of social meanings that food donation has, in the course of the twentieth century, anthropology has provided some other significant examples to expand the reflection. First of all, in his studies of the inhabitants of the Trobriand Islands in Papua New Guinea, Malinowski (1922, 1927, 1935) repeatedly described cases of food donation. Most of them are linked not just with an issue concerning food redistribution and community resilience; on the contrary, they are mostly linked to food accumulation and status. The key food product that is donated among the Trobianders is yam. Yam cultivation is at the center of Trobriander gardening. However, only part of the tubers a family produces is used as food. A large part of the yam is used as a gift. In particular, a form of gift that comes under the rubric of pokala (Malinowski 1935, p. 345) is relevant to understand what food donation can socially mean for the donor. With pokala, a young member of the family offers yam and its labor to sub-clan or clan seniors in hope of future patronage (Malinowski 1922, pp. 185–186). Through this form of tribute, the young person aims at gaining the favor of the elder and in so doing moving forward in his legitimation within the clan and to the gradual acquisition in advance of matrilineal inheritance (Malinowski 1935, p. 345). The receiver would not use the yams for his own consumption, but rather would expose them on his property, and let them rot in public display. Thus, the tubers turn into a public symbol of social prominence and affluence for the elder in front the entire community. At the same time, the possibility and capacity of donating a large quantity of yam is a fundamental way for the young person to grow in social recognition.

Pokala thus suggests, the importance of food donation relies not just on the material value of the gift but rather to the very individual’s participation in a donation. A similar conclusion can be taken also considering two other famous ethnographic examples. The first is the one of potlatch. It is a gift-giving feast practiced by Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast of Canada and the USA, officially banned in Canada in 1884 and become particular known in anthropology, thanks to the writing of Boas (1888) and Mauss (2007). The feast was held for major events of a community by a numaym, a complex cognatic kin group usually grouped together into a nation. During the feast, titles concerning social and religious roles were distributed within the numaym and between numayama. Besides this transfer, the event was important for the distribution among the guest of goods, in particular blankets, animal skins, jewelry, and food. These gifts have a fundamental political role among chieftains. In fact, “in the potlatch, the host in effect challenged a guest chieftain to exceed him in his ‘power’ to give away or to destroy goods. If the guest did not return 100 percent on the gifts received and destroy even more wealth in a bigger and better bonfire, he and his people lost face and so his ‘power’ was diminished.” (Johansen 1967, pp. 7–8).

Moka is a similar example. It is a system of exchange which plays a fundamental role in the political life of the communities settled in the Mount Hagen area, Papua New Guinea. It is based on gift-giving between men competing for their public recognition as big man, which is to be faction leaders in a society whose structure is arranged horizontally among segmented lineage groups. In this context, leadership is gained through action and competition with other men (Sahlins 1963). In this exchange, gifts are mainly limited to pigs and a few other goods. When goods are received in a moka, the receiver is bound to repay the goods back. However, to gain social status, he has also to give an extra, the moka. Vice versa, when the giver will receive the new moka, he will have to reciprocate the gift, adding an extra to maintain and increase his status (Gregory 1982). This constant sway of debt relations is at the basis of the political system and shows, also in this case, that food donation expresses its social meaning not just because of the use value of food, but rather the very participation to the donation. As a matter of facts, in this context as well as in the case of potlatch, a food donation is not an altruistic act but rather aims at dampening the social reputation of the receiver confirming its inferiority.

This historical and ethnographical excursus questions any aprioristically positive interpretation of food donation, asking to contextualize the phenomenon and think about the social and political implication that can have. In particular, they ask for paying attention to the actual structure of the process of donation and distribution, as well as to the cultural basis on which the process is built.

Food Drive Structure

Food drives are one of the most recent forms of food collection and donation and nowadays one of the most common in all the developed countries. They are food collections organized by groups of people who volunteer in gathering food for certain institutions, such as food banks or soup kitchens. The initiatives run on a precise date, generally linked to a festivity, such as Christmas or Easter, or in an occurrence of a nationwide charity campaign. The collection is carried out in precise locations, generally nearby or inside a food shop (e.g., a mall or a supermarket) or in key places of a city (e.g., the central square or the main road). In those places, the volunteers ask bystanders to donate food. In particular, the demand is for any kind of food that can be stored for a long period (such as rice, pasta, dried vegetable, and canned food).

The term develops during the twentieth century in the USA, in particular in the second post-war period (Mair et al. 1985; Relations and Subcommittee 1985; Schmidt 1951). Since the 1970s, it came to be a wide-spread term internationally to refer initiatives organized by local, national, and international charities and institutions aimed at collecting food to stock food banks and soup kitchens in order to provide food to people in need. Some examples are Colletta Alimentare, run by Fondazione Banco Alimentare in Italy (see next paragraph), the campaigns promoted by Feeding America in the USA (, the initiatives promoted by Kapu Africa in Kenya (, the ones promoted by Foodbank in Australia ( These initiatives stem from previous experiences of food collections organized by Christian charity organizations, such as parishes, hospices, food banks, and soup kitchens, but develop in a model today commonly adopted by public institutions, religious and nonreligious charities, and different associations. Compared to more traditional forms of food collection, food drives have a greater organization, and a more structured synergy with others charity institutions, such as soup kitchens and food banks, which are the receivers of the donated food.

Soup kitchens are private or public institutions aimed at supplying nutritious food to large numbers of people, and in particular people in need. As pointed out by Weil (1987), the origins of such institutions can be traced back to antiquity. However, modern forms of soup kitchens developed in the nineteenth century, when Western countries began a wide action concerning the regulation of such institutions and, more broadly, of all the charity bodies. They are public canteens that offer food for free or to a symbolic cost. They run on a nonprofit base and are sustained by volunteer works and private and public donors.

Food banks are a more recent invention, being the first one, the St. Mary’s Food Bank Alliance in Arizona, founded in 1967 ( Food banks are charity bodies aimed at collecting food surplus from shops, restaurants, governmental bodies, and private donors, and redistributing it to the most vulnerable people. Therefore, food banks are food warehouses that accomplish their social goal directly, offering food to people in the form of food packages, or indirectly, by donating food to soup kitchens or other charitable institutions that will provide meals to people in need.

Thus, food drives cannot be understood alone but should be considered as a part of a broader strategy of hunger and poverty relief that involves also soup kitchens and food banks, as Fig. 2 summarizes.
Fig. 2

Food donations, food drive, food banks, and soup kitchens

The strategy develops a complex process of food redistribution that moves the products from the local food drives, through deposits and food banks, to areas that can be far away from the donors, as in the case of the campaign “Emergency Food” run in the USA by World Vision ( in order to collect food for different African communities. It is in this perspective that food drive should be understood first of all as a local strategy for fighting urban poverty, and more broadly as a tool to achieve Zero Hunger on a global scale.

Colletta Alimentare: A Key Study

To better understand the function and work of a food drive, Colletta Alimentare ( appears a relevant case study, because it is the main food drive in Italy and one of the largest initiatives in Europe. It has been organized annually on the last Saturday of November since 1997 by Fondazione Banco Alimentare.

Fondazione Banco Alimentare is the first and largest national food bank of Italy ( It is a nonprofit organization that, in 2017, ran on a budget of 4.9 million euro, 40% of which gathered from public funding and 60% from private donations. It was founded in 1989 by Danilo Fossati, then the owner of one of the largest food enterprises of the country, and Monsignor Luigi Giussani, the founder of the Catholic movement Communion and Liberation. The Banco Alimentare was created following the models experimented in other Western countries, such as the USA, the UK, and France, aiming at supporting the broader network of charity intuitions of the country by providing them food for their social initiatives. Since its foundation, Banco Alimentare has collaborated with both private and public sectors, collecting food surplus from food industries and the main Italian supermarket companies, as well as food aids from the European Union. Since 1997, Banco Alimentare promoted the Colletta Alimentare initiative as an additional strategy of food collection. This is also one of the most known initiatives promoted by the Fondazione.

Since its first edition, the Colletta Alimentare has expanded, moving from the initial 1,700 t of food collected in 1997 to the over 8,200 t gathered in 2017. The 2017 Colletta Alimentare was organized on the 25th November and involved 13,000 food shops and 145,000 donors. Donors could donate food or make a donation online or on the phone. In the case of a monetary donation, money was entirely used to support the purchase of food for the food drive. The collected items were distributed among 8,042 charity institutions, which encompassed charity institutions such as soup kitchens, juvenile facilities, local food banks, and reception centers for refugee or asylum seekers. Through these institutions, the collected food was shared among over 1.5 million final receivers.

The Colletta Alimentare is organized through the volunteers of the Fondazione Banco Alimentare, and a wider network of private and public actors, nonprofit associations, religious groups, school groups, and other individuals or groups that are mobilized to collaborate on the successful result of the food drive. In this respect, it emerges the complexity of the initiative. The multitude of punctual, local actions run by local groups is coordinated by the Foundation through its local branches (21 in 2018), each one of them managing one deposit. At the end of the day, all the food collected through the local actions is taken to the deposit and is distributed to the beneficiary charities. Therefore, the Colletta Alimentare is an initiative open to any grassroots action, hence, capable of a capillary expansion on the local ground. It is in this open structure that one can find one of the key elements of its success and social impact.

Food Drive Toward Zero Hunger

Food drives are a form of voluntary redistribution of wealth and resources aimed at supporting the most vulnerable sectors of society. In this respect, they can have a direct and indirect role in achieving UNSDG Zero Hunger.

As in the case of Colletta Alimentare, food drives proved to offer a concrete contribution in terms of the quantity of food they gathered and redistribute. However, being voluntary, the contribution and the overall result of each drive are erratic, leveraging on the ethical and moral sense of the affluent members of society. Secondly, the contribution is always mediated and generally does not require and does not create direct contact between the donor and the final receiver. Thus, the participation risks to be fragile, laying only on the emotionality of donors, the insistence of volunteers, and the more general Zeitgeist. Moreover, the network of institutions and actors that underpins a food drive campaign can be not as effective as expected in creating viable access to food for the poor. This is linked not only to the actual ability of these institutions to provide meals to the people, but it is also connected to the social stigma (Goffman 1963) that is often linked to soup kitchens and food banks. This stigma inhibits the actual access to a significant part of the potential public (Loopstra and Tarasuk 2015). Moreover, the actual amount of goods a food drive can collect is limited, in so much as a common remark in the public debate suggests that rather than food people should make a monetary donation, since with that money charities could buy more and better food than what is donated. Rather than quantity, in fact, the real limitation of food donation is the actual quality and selection of products given. As poetically explained by Lynch (2006, p. 131), in a food drive “we got to choose from the cupboard. We gave what we hate - beets, peas, mushrooms. Our dreams were not of rice.” While the requests for long-life products excludes the possibility of vegetable, fruits, and other fresh products with a higher nutritional value, the products people donated, as well as the food surplus offered by shops are generally low quality, rich in sugar, carbohydrates, and preservatives. If not balanced in a different way, a diet only based on these products is likely to have negative effects on the lives of the recipients limiting the problem of hunger, but not the one of malnutrition.

Despite these limitations that make clear food drives are not a strategy to resolve structurally the issue of the unbalance food access, food drives play an important role in sustaining those front-line charities that cope every day with poverty and hunger. In so doing, they play a role in supporting an aspect of welfare system mostly covered by civil society, since public institutions have limited reach. Moreover, besides the actual food collected, food drives are important initiatives of sensitization and social involvement. On the one hand, they are able to involve people in the organization and development of food collection; on the other hand, they bring to the fore the issue of poverty relief, hunger, and social marginality to the public’s attention by highlighting the work and contribution given to society by the charity bodies for which the initiative is run and the conspicuous number of people that access soup kitchens and food banks to get access to food. The presence of the volunteers in the shops and the streets, the media campaigns that, as in the case of Colletta Alimentare, support the initiatives lift the veil of silence that often is attached to the issues. Thus, food drives are a cogent form of social activism often replicated on different scales by several actors of the voluntary sector and contribute in creating a fertile ground for an open public debate about the topic of access to food, which is the first and necessary step forwards for implementing social policies that can actually offer a better systemic response to the social needs than the one that charities institution left alone can offer.



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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of Gastronomic SciencesPollenzoItaly

Section editors and affiliations

  • Mohammad Sadegh Allahyari
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Agricultural ManagementRasht Branch, Islamic Azad UniversityRashtIran