Encyclopedia of Food and Agricultural Ethics

Living Edition
| Editors: David M. Kaplan

Access to Food

  • Clement LooEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-007-6167-4_551-1


Food Security Census Tract Food System Food Access Food Sovereignty 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



Limited access is defined by the USDA (2015) through reference to three criteria: household income, ability to make reliable use of transportation, and distance to full-service grocers. While the USDA’s (2015) definition is somewhat narrow, it highlights elements that serve as a basis for a more general account of access to food. The three criteria of the USDA (2015) definition suggest that food access is a matter of wealth, ability to make use of infrastructure and resources, and how both affect an individual’s or community’s ability to eat a nutritionally sufficient and culturally appropriate diet (Maxwell and Frankenberger 1992).

Access to food can be contrasted to the availability of food. The availability of food is usually understood as a technical matter dependent on agricultural productivity and the efficiency of infrastructure and practices related to the transportation and processing of food. On the other hand, access to food is a social, economic, and political matter determined by exchange entitlement, which Sen (1998) frames in terms of:
  1. 1.

    Trade-based entitlement: one’s capacity to obtain goods through exchange with other willing parties

  2. 2.

    Production-based entitlement: one’s capacity to produce goods using one’s own resources or resources that one hires from willing parties

  3. 3.

    Own-labor entitlement: gained by the processing of resources through one’s efforts

  4. 4.

    Inheritance/transfer entitlement: gained through having goods given to one by another who legitimately owns those goods


So, access to food depends on employment status, income, and eligibility to receive social services or financial assistance, which affect one’s ability to purchase food from the market Sen 1998; Maxwell and Frankenberger 1992). It is also a matter of land use rights, physical ability, and seed ownership. All of the previously listed factors are in turn influenced by one’s socially, politically, and economically relevant characteristics such as age, health, sex/gender, race/ethnicity, and caste or class.

Access to food is most often discussed in scholarship and three topics: (1) food security, (2) food deserts, and (3) food justice.

Food Security

In his monograph titled Poverty and Famines, Sen (1998) argues that hunger and famine are not usually most directly the result of inadequate agricultural yields or food supply. Rather, hunger and famine are most immediately caused by economic, political, and social marginalization (Sen 1998). In other words, food insecurity is generally not, as many might assume, primarily determined by the availability of food – it is, instead, determined by access to food. If one considers historical cases, one finds that both increases and decreases in the rate of undernutrition are often relatively independent of food supply (Sen 1998). One example of this can be found in socialist countries such as China in the latter half of the twentieth century.

Sen (1998) notes that in countries such as China, rates of starvation have decreased (or been eliminated) with the inception of socialism even though there often has not been any substantial increase in agricultural productivity or food supply relative to the size of the population. Rather, the explanation for such reduction in under-nutrition is the result of changes in the entitlement system, specifically the strengthening of social security, guaranteed employment, and mandatory increases in wages (Sen 1998).

Moreover, famine and starvation can occur even without decreases in productivity, and even in instances when famine is the result of decreases in agricultural yields, hunger is never evenly distributed throughout the population (Sen 1998). When agricultural systems collapse and food supplies crash, those with adequate wealth and social status tend to avoid undernutrition (Sen 1998). Instead, it is those who are marginalized or are poor who tend to go hungry because they lack the ability or resources to weather disruptions to the food system (Sen 1998).

Sen (1998) cites several examples to illustrate the above cases: the Great Bengal Famine, the Ethiopian famine of the early 1970s, famine in the Sahel in the late 1960s, and the famine within Bangladesh in 1974 (Sen 1998).

Sen (1998) suggests that in all the above cases, hunger, starvation, and mortality rates far exceeded what one might expect given only the decreases in food supply. Instead, in these cases, the factors most likely to be responsible for famine include: trade disruption or commodity speculation leading to price increases, increases in rates of rural poverty, commodity speculation, decreases in the price of land and livestock (which led to loss of wealth), lack of insurance for fluctuations in the prices of cash crops, and inflation outstripping wage increases (Sen 1998). These factors all, in one way or another, resulted in increases in the price of food relative to average income. Because of this relative increase in food price, the most impoverished segments of the population lost the capacity to purchase the necessary amount of calories to maintain health. Thus, many went hungry despite there being food that they could have eaten if they would have been able to afford it.

The examples of the Great Bengal Famine, the Ethiopian famine, famine in the Sahel, and the famine within Bangladesh – if Sen (1998) is correct – demonstrate the importance of food access for food security. The importance of access for food security can be found in the food deserts that have sprung up within inner cities and the rural countryside of the United States (Beaulac et al. 2009), Canada (Smoyer-Tomic et al. 2006), the United Kingdom (Wrigley 2002; Furey et al. 2001), and Australia (O’Dwyer and Coveney 2006).

Food Deserts

The term “food desert” was first coined in a report by the Nutrition Task Force Low Income Project Team of the UK Department of Health (Beaumont et al. 1995). There are a number of ways that food deserts have been defined, but one of the clearest and most concrete is offered by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) (2015). The USDA (2015) considers a census tract to be food desert if it meets two criteria.

First, it must have a poverty rate of 20 % or higher, a median family income that is less than or equal to 80 % of the state, or be a tract within a metropolitan area and has a median family that is less than or equal to 80 % of the median family income of that metropolitan area. Second, it must have limited access to food. The USDA (2015) categorizes a census tract as having limited access to food if a substantial portion (where “substantial portion” is understood as instances where one of the following obtains: at least 100 households, at least 500 people, and at least 33 % of the population or where the ratio of households outside the minimum distance or with limited use of a vehicle relative to households within the minimum distance or has a vehicle available is 5–1.) of households within that tract must be further than 1 mile from a supermarket if the tract is urban or 10 miles if it is a rural. (However, the USDA (2015) in some instances instead employs a 0.5-mile minimum distance for urban tracts and a 20-mile distance for rural tracts or considers household vehicle availability.)

In essence food deserts are areas where it is difficult to purchase fresh fruit, vegetables, and meat from vendors within reasonable walking distance. The residents in those areas, to obtain fresh food, must then have (1) reliable use of an adequately well-maintained car; (2) have access to public transportation, the physical ability to carry groceries for an extended period, and available free time to be able to regularly take lengthy trips to relatively faraway grocers; or (3) have the use of enough land, time, knowledge, and physical capacity to grow their own food. Moreover, the factors listed above in this paragraph all interact with income, social class, and health in a manner that tends to further disadvantage those who are already marginalized.

For example, in addition to having the least available funds for purchasing food, those with lower incomes are often the least likely to own their own car. As the USDA (2009) points out, car ownership is the most important predictor of whether a household has adequate access to food. Moreover, those with incomes below the poverty line are often the least able to have regular use of arable land and are the least able to grow their own food. Those with lower incomes are, for all the reasons above, particularly harmed by long travel distances to food.

The disproportionate impacts of the need to travel longer distances to access grocers become even more worrisome when one considers the areas most likely to have limited access to food. Areas of reduced food access have, in recent decades, proliferated throughout the inner cities and the rural countryside of the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada (USDA 2015; Walker et al. 2010; O’Dwyer and Coveney 2006; Smoyer-Tomic et al. 2006; Wrigley 2002; Furey et al. 2001). This is noteworthy because poverty, in higher-income countries, tends to be concentrated within both inner cities and the country (Jargowski 2002; Alston 2000; Cloke et al. 1995; Tickameyer and Duncan 1990). According to the USDA (2009), at present a full 6 % of all households within the United States can be categorized as having limited access to food. Within households considered lower income, the percentage with limited access can be as high as 38 % (USDA 2009).

Those with lower incomes, because they so often find themselves living within food deserts and lacking access to full-service grocers, find themselves reliant upon bodegas, fast-food restaurants, and liquor stores for food (Ornelas 2010). Their diets, as such, tend to include proportionally more processed foods that are more shelf stable and do not require refrigeration or specialized handling (Ornelas 2010). These processed foods tend to be more calorically dense and contain more refined sugars, fats, and sodium compared to fresh foods (Ornelas 2010), which contributes to higher rates of obesity and obesity-related disorders (such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes) within those living within food deserts (White 2007).

With the above being the case, food deserts have become a topic often discussed by those concerned with food justice.

Food Justice

Food justice was first defined by Lang and Heasman (2004) as involving the correction of “the maldistribution of food, poor access to a good diet, inequities in the labour process and unfair returns for key suppliers along the food chain.” This sentiment is echoed by Gottlieb and Joshi (2010) who assert that food justice is a matter of “ensuring that the benefits and risks of where, what, and how food is grown and produced, transported and distributed, and accessed and eaten are shared fairly.” Alkon and Agyeman (2011) expand upon Lang and Heasman’s and Gottlieb and Joshi’s definition, noting:

Essential to the food justice movement is an analysis that recognizes the food system itself as a racial project and problematizes the influence of race and class on production, distribution, and consumption of food. Communities of color and poor communities have time and time again been denied access to the means of food production, and, due to both price and store location, often cannot access the diet advocated by the food movement. Through food justice activism, low-income communities and communities of color seek to create local food systems that meet their own food needs.

Common to these definitions is the notion that just food systems are ones in which all segments of the population have equitable access to healthy food.

In addition to the food deserts discussed above, scholars concerned about food justice have identified a number of phenomena that contribute to the inequitable access to food in a manner that has resulted in harm to marginalized populations. One commonly cited example are the recent farm bills within the United States that have resulted in the global food system becoming increasingly integrated into a small number of agribusinesses (Gottlieb and Joshi 2010). Those concerned about the integration of the food system argue that such integration contributes to the homogenization of diets around the world, which leads to adverse health outcomes for a many of those living in lower- and middle-income countries (LMICs) (Popkin et al. 2012; Wilkinson 2004).

Gottlieb and Joshi (2010) suggest that the agricultural policy of the United States – manifested primarily through farm bills – has emphasized “export-oriented agriculture.” More specifically, it endorses and promotes the view that the agricultural sector within the United States should endeavor to produce surpluses of commodity crops that can then be traded to other countries.

However, Gottlieb and Joshi (2010) argue that adoption of agricultural policy that focuses primarily on the growing of surpluses for export has resulted in programs that tend to favor ever larger farms that can make the most of efficiencies of scale and use of Green Revolution technologies to maximize yields. This, in turn, has led to the consolidation of land and the elimination of small family farms (Gottlieb and Joshi 2010). The emphasis on the production of surpluses for export within agricultural policy has also led to the integration of the firms producing agricultural inputs and food processors into a small number of very large “agribusiness” conglomerates (Gottlieb and Joshi 2010).

The formation of these conglomerates has allowed for the existence of entities with the resources and wherewithal to capture the regulatory process through lobbying of congress and various federal regulatory bodies (Gottlieb and Joshi 2010). This regulatory capture then reinforced the continuing promotion of federal legislation and regulatory actions that tended to favor large firms over smaller independent operations throughout the agricultural sector and the food system (Gottlieb and Joshi 2010) Indeed, partly due to the impact of this stacking the deck in favor of larger operators, by the 1990s somewhere between 70 % and 80 % of the market share for food within the United States was held by just five companies (Wilkinson 2009).

The concentration of market share into the control of such a small number of entities alone is sufficient to affect access. It limits the options available for the general public. With control of such a large a proportion of the available food being concentrated to five firms, it becomes quite difficult for the public to purchase products other than those offered by those firms.

With the above said, the emphasis on export within American farm bills has not only reshaped the food system within the United States; it has had effects throughout the world (Gottlieb and Joshi 2010). A clear example of this can be seen within the food systems of many LMICs. As of 2013, the United States exports over $45 billion of processed food per year with a large portion of it going to LMICs such as Mexico, China, and the Philippines (USDA 2014). The trade of processed food from the United States and other high-income countries into LMICs has grown to the point that they now account for more than a third of all exports (Wilkinson 2009). These exports when combined with exports from the European Union and foreign direct investment on the part of agribusiness firms leading to the development of subsidiary companies within many LMICs have contributed to a substantial shift in global diets that is referred to as “the nutrition transition” (Popkin et al. 2012; Wilkinson 2009).

As the result of the influx of cheap imports from the United States and Europe, food prices in many LMICs have dropped to the degree such that native farmers are no longer able to compete and as such have been forced off the land (Stuckler et al. 2012; Stuckler and Siegel 2011). This has led to the rapid depopulation of rural areas within many LMICs and, more importantly, the development of a “dietary dependency” to foods grown and processed by firms based in HICs (Stuckler et al. 2012). With the loss of local agriculture and food systems and the newly formed dependency on imports also comes the loss of access to many traditional foods.

As the result of this, as Khoury et al. (2014) have found, diets around the world have become increasingly homogenous. More specifically, in all of the countries they reviewed, they discovered that diets are converging on what they refer to as the “global standard composition” (Khoury et al. 2014). In the past most communities tended to consume diets based upon crops and livestock endemic to their region. That is no longer the case. Instead, at present, diets throughout the world tend to mirror those originally found in the United States and – to a lesser extent – Western Europe (Khoury et al. 2014).

The practical outcome of this is that diets, particularly those of communities living within LMICs, are including fewer fresh fruits and vegetables and now contain far more meat, refined sugar, fats, and oils (Popkin et al. 2012). As such, diets in many LMICs have also become far more calorically dense, and obesity rates within those countries have increased sharply in recent decades (Popkin et al. 2012).

Since the 1980s obesity rates have seen an annual increase of up to 5.7 % per year within some regions, and annual increases in obesity rates of 4 % are common throughout Latin America, Asia, and Africa (Popkin et al. 2012). Such increases in obesity come with a number of health risks. As noted earlier, being obese substantially increases one’s risk for disorders such as sleep apnea, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease – all of which are associated with higher rates of mortality (Kopelman 2000).

The strategies that have been proposed as a means to address the above-discussed problems also concentrate on the topic of food access, specifically how such access can be improved. For example, Gottlieb and Joshi (2010) refer to the efforts of La Via Campesina. La Via Campesina is an international network of smallholder farmers who advocate for land reform as a means of restoring regional food sovereignty and independence. This is done in the belief that, given that much of the world’s most impoverished persons are farmers, providing small farmers with the opportunity to grow their own food will likely serve to reduce hunger by providing the currently food insecure with the capacity to control and have more direct access to their food (Holt-Gimenez 2011).

In general, strategies to improve equity within food systems involve shortening the distance between farmers and consumers as a means to improve the ability of consumers to influence the manner in which their food is grown and distributed (Loo 2014). Specifically, the literature concerned with food justice tends to endorse some combination of three approaches to ensuring food security for underserved communities and populations: (1) restoration of locally owned and operated markets where farmers can vend directly to their customers, (2) development of community-supported agriculture, and (3) alternative local agriculture such as community or urban gardens (Loo 2014; Alkon and Agyeman 2011; Gottlieb and Joshi 2010).

The advocates who propose these solutions do so because they believe that these solutions would provide alternative sources of food and allow consumers to have more direct control of their food system (Loo 2014). With more options and control of their own food systems, the currently food insecure could better insulate themselves from having their access to food denied by circumstance or the activity of others (Alkon and Agyeman 2011; Gottlieb and Joshi 2010).


Food access has come to be understood as primarily a matter of exchange entitlement. Whether one has enough to eat is often less dependent upon how much food is present than it is upon economic, social, and political factors affecting one’s purchasing power and ability to make use of land and other resources necessary for agriculture. This manifests in problems such as the food deserts that have been appearing in recent decades throughout the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and other countries. Access to food has also entered into the literature concerned with food justice. In the food justice literature, loss of access to traditional diets has been blamed for increases in rates of obesity and associated adverse health outcomes. Improving access to food has also been proposed as a means to restore equity within food systems.



  1. Alkon, A. H., & Agyeman, J. (2011). Introduction: The food movement as polyculture. In A. H. Alkon & J. Agyeman (Eds.), Cultivating food justice: Race, class, and sustainability (pp. 1–20). Cambridge: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  2. Alston, M. (2000). Rural poverty. Australian Social Work, 53, 29–34.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Beaulac, J., Kristjansson, E., & Cummins, S. (2009). A systematic review of food deserts, 1966–2007. Preventing Chronic Disease, 6(3), 1145–1151.Google Scholar
  4. Beaumont, J., Lang, T., Leather, S., & Mucklow, C. (1995). Report from the policy sub-group to the Nutrition Task Force Low Income Project Team of the Department of Health. Watford: Institute of Grocery Distribution.Google Scholar
  5. Cloke, P., Goodwin, M., Milbourne, P., & Thomas, C. (1995). Deprivation, poverty and marginalization in rural lifestyles in England and Wales. Journal of Rural Studies, 11, 351–365.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Furey, S., Strugnell, C., & McIlveen, H. (2001). An investigation of the potential existence of “food deserts” in rural and urban areas of Northern Ireland. Agriculture and Human Values, 18(4), 447–457.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Gottlieb, R., & Joshi, A. (2010). Food justice. Cambridge: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  8. Holt-Gimenez, E. (2011). Food security, food justice, or food sovereignty? In A. H. Alkon & J. Agyeman (Eds.), Cultivating food justice: Race, class, and sustainability (pp. 309–330). Cambridge: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  9. Jargowski, P. A. (2002). Sprawl, concentration of poverty, and urban inequality. In G. D. Squires (Ed.), Urban sprawl: Causes, consequences, & policy responses (pp. 39–71). Washington: Urban Institute Press.Google Scholar
  10. Khoury, C. K., Bjorkman, A. D., Dempewolf, H., Ramirez-Villega, J., Guarino, L., Jarvis, A., Rieseberg, L. H., & Struik, P. C. (2014). Increasing homogeneity in global food supplies and the implications for food security. PNAS, 111, 4001–4006.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Kopelman, P. G. (2000). Obesity as a medical problem. Nature, 404, 635–643.Google Scholar
  12. Lang, T., & Heasman, M. (2004). Food wars: The global battle for mouths, minds, and markets. London: Earthscan.Google Scholar
  13. Loo, C. (2014). Towards a more participative definition of food justice. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 27, 787–809.Google Scholar
  14. Maxwell, S., & Frankenberger, T. (1992). Household food security: Concepts, indicators, and measurements. Rome: IFAD.Google Scholar
  15. O’Dwyer, L. A., & Coveney, J. (2006). Scoping supermarket availability and accessibility by socio-economic status in Adelaide. Health Promotion Journal of Australia, 17(3), 240–246.Google Scholar
  16. Ornelas, L. (2010). Shining a light on the valley of heart’s delight: Taking a look at access to healthy foods in Santa Clara county’s communities of color and low-income communities. San Jose: Food Empowerment Project.Google Scholar
  17. Popkin, B. M., Adair, L. S., & Ng, S. W. (2012). Global nutrition transition and the pandemic of obesity in developing countries. Nutrition Reviews, 10, 3–21.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Sen, A. (1998). Poverty and famines: An essay on entitlement and deprivation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  19. Smoyer-Tomic, K. E., Spence, J. C., & Amrhein, C. (2006). Food deserts in the prairies? Supermarket accessibility and neighborhood need in Edmonton, Canada. The Professional Geographer, 58(3), 307–326.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Stuckler, D., & Siegel, K. (2011). Sick societies: Responding to the global challenge of chronic disease. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Stuckler, D., McKee, M., Ebrahim, S., & Basu, S. (2012). Manufacturing epidemics: The role of global producers in increased consumption of unhealthy commodities including processed foods, alcohol, and tobacco. PLoS Medicine, 9(6), e1001235. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1001235.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Tickameyer, A. R., & Duncan, C. M. (1990). Poverty and opportunity structure in rural America. Annual Review of Sociology, 16, 67–86.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. United States Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service (2009). Access to affordable and nutritious food: Measuring and understanding food deserts and their consequences, report to congress. http://www.ers.usda.gov/media/242675/ap036_1_.pdf. Accessed 9 Mar 2016.
  24. United States Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service (2015). Food Access Research Atlas: Documentation. http://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/food-access-research-atlas/documentation.aspx. Accessed 9 Feb 2016.
  25. United States Department of Agriculture, Foreign Agricultural Service (2014). U.S. processed food exports: Category growth & outlook. http://www.fas.usda.gov/data/us-processed-food-exports-growth-outlook. Accessed 11 Mar 2016.
  26. Walker, R. E., Keane, C. K., & Burke, J. G. (2010). Disparities and access to healthy food in the United States: A review of food deserts literature. Health & Place, 16, 876–884.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Wilkinson, J. (2004). The food processing industry, globalization and developing countries. Electronic Journal of Agricultural and Development Economies, 1, 184–201.Google Scholar
  28. White, M. (2007). Food access and obesity. Obesity Reviews, 8, 99–107.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Wilkinson, J. (2009). The globalization of agribusiness and developing world food systems. Monthly Review, 61, 38–49.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Wrigley, N. (2002). “Food deserts” in British Cities: Policy context and research priorities. Urban Studies, 39(11), 2029–2040.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Environmental StudiesUniversity of Minnesota MorrisMorrisUSA