Urban poverty and poor diets are intricately linked with one another. With most of the world’s population living in or considering moving to the urban centres, it is imperative to understand the reasons behind a lack of access to healthy diets. The problems of food insecurity and malnutrition are driven by both the income and non-income dimensions of urban poverty.
After decades of decline, global hunger is increasing. The UN agencies have estimated, that more than 2 billion people do not have regular access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food, and more than 820 million – one out of every nine people – face chronic food deprivation. At the same time, overweight and obesity continue to increase, especially among adults and school-age children. This is now described as an epidemic: more than one in eight adults is obese.
This ‘new’ form of malnutrition is concentrated in cities and towns. Urban areas are home to the majority of overweight and obese adults and one in three stunted children. To achieve Sustainable Development Goal target 2.2 of eliminating all forms of malnutrition, we need to understand and address what drives malnutrition in urban areas.
The link between urban poverty and food insecurity
Food insecurity is directly linked with poverty in urban areas. Households that depend on low and irregular incomes are vulnerable to frequent accidents, illnesses and also, increasingly, floods and heatwaves. If for any reason the main family earner cannot work, there will be no food on the table that day.
In Bangalore, the more food insecure residents are also those who lack access to piped water and adequate housing and are often recent migrants to the city with limited support networks.
Food insecurity and Plight of Women
Food-related roles are heavily gendered. It is almost always women who know how to stretch meagre budgets to feed several people, often at a high cost of their time and energy. It is not unusual for women to go hungry in order to feed their families.
Women are also more knowledgeable than men about microbial risk and good hygiene practices, both within the home and in their work as food traders and producers. While nutrition education is important, it needs to be supported by actions that acknowledge and address the additional burdens faced by women.
Issues Beyond Food
Food is central to urban life: it connects cities to the wider world, shapes their public spaces and is a very large part of urban economies. Food is also at the heart of webs of supportive social relations between traders and consumers, especially small-scale vendors.
Ending all forms of malnutrition (SDG target 2.2) and achieving food and nutrition security in urban contexts requires a wide set of policy responses that go beyond food to address the multiple dimensions of urban poverty, the use of urban spaces and the social dimensions of food systems.
It is crucial to recognise the needs of low-income and marginalised groups because failure to do so will not only miss agreed targets but may well deepen urban food insecurity and malnutrition.