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There is no one way to understand the food security of urban dwellers and no one prescription to resolve them. UNICEF with the International Food Policy Research Insttitute recently documented the effects on food security and nutrition of a wide range of activities in seven cities. Two of those experiences are summarised below:

Country Experiences

People's itchens in Lima

STRUCTURAL ADJUSTMENT in the 1 980s and existing high inflation and poverty combined to make poverty, food insecurity and malnutrition widespread features of life in the Peruvian capital. One third of housing in Lima by 1990 was estimated to be grossly sub-standard. Prices of basic foods, such as beans, increased by 1 200 % in Lima in the 1980. In this period of hardship, women's groups, church groups and health workers organised to establish communal "people's" kitchens, which numbered about 2 300 by 1990. The kitchens continue to grow in popularity. In many of them, women organise themselves into a cooperative to provide daily meals at the lowest possible rate to cover costs. In others, they may generate a small profit and use it to invest in day care or other services. An umbrella organisation of people's kitchen groups does national-level lobbying on food security issues on behalf of the poor, representing a second level of organization. The kitchens have raised a host of political and economic issues, including whether women forgo better economic opportunities by working in them and whether they represent a good use of external food aid. Studies have shown however that families frequenting the kitchens had a more diverse diet than others from similar income groups and that the content of the meals represented a very high percentage of daily dietary needs. In this case, a food-based activity has had a positive impact well beyond food security on the organizational and management capacity of poor women, their status in the community, and their awareness of political and economic issues.

When basic foods became too expensive in Lima hunger spread rapidly

Poverty in Peru has been worsened by high inflation and structural adjustment.

Cities and Economic Crisis

THE LAST 15 YEARS have been hard on city dwellers in developing countries. The policies that in many countries resulted in affordable food, basic services and social safety nets in the 1960s and 1970s disappeared in the era of structural adjustment and austerity budgets of the 1980s. Food prices have risen markedly in many major urban centers since 1980; civil service jobs have become more scarce and Low-wage informal sector jobs a more important source of Livelihood.

The share of the world's food security problem that is urban rather than rural has grown with the urbanization of the planet. As noted at the recent Habitat II conference, the number of urban centers with 500,000 or more inhabitants was 438 in 1980 (representing about 745 million people) and is expected to be 892 in 2010 (3.8 billion people). One half of the world's population will be urban by 2005 and three-fifths by 2025. The inadequacy of housing in many cities also means inadequate access to water and cooking space for food preparation. For example, 31% of homes in Tegucigalpa, 26% in La Paz and 19% in Addis Ababa are estimated to have no kitchen or cooking space, and much higher percentages have no access to piped water.

Food security is a part of livelihood security for urban dwellers as well as rural families, but in the urban environment, livelihood strategies may be even more complex. The absence of extended families and the need to take on long hours of work at low wages can make food preparation, child care and daily household duties a constant challenge for women. With their Limited disposable income, families may have to choose among school fees, increasingly costly health services, food and clothing, and shelter. Household food security in cities must be assessed in ways that clarify these difficult trade-offs faced by families.

Slum Improvement in Dhaka

IN SELECTED SLUMS of the Bangladeshi capital, it was estimated that only 20 percent of children attended school, 50 percent of young children were underweight, and only 40 percent of children were immunized, and few homes had adequate sanitation.

The most common occupations for men were rickshaw-driving and stone-crushing and for women being maids or low-paid garment workers. A UNICEF-supported project resulted in the training of women as community health workers, the training of some residents in tubewell maintenance, savings and micro-credit programmes combined with literacy training for women. Infrastructure projects as part of this work included tubewells, latrines, dustbins, drainage systems, footpaths and street lighting.

Sustainable community organisations were established and supported. Although a full evaluation is not yet complete, hygiene practices have improved, the incidence and severity of diarrhea is down, and women have praised the activities that have enabled them to organise and share experiences with their peers. The impact on food security, while indirect and gradual, is expected to be significant as women continue to organise and improve their income-earning potential and their ability to ensure good child care at a low cost.

Only 20 percent of Dhaka's children go to school.

Lessons and Srategies

URBAN POVERTY and food insecurity are intractable structural problems that will be resolved only through structural change and empowerment of the poor. Sustainable social safety nets provide some measure of relief. Some of the conclusions UNICEF has drawn from the experience of urban programmes it has supported:

Status of Women

Food security can be enhanced by measures that improve the status of women -that is, that improve their income-earning potential and organizational capacity and their decision-making authority in the home and community, and help them save time and energy. Urban women, often devoid of extended family contacts and other social networks, have a special need for maternity leave and other benefits on the job and mechanisms to enable them to care for and feed their young children even if they work outside the home.

Basic services

Improved access to basic social services such as education and health have obvious benefits for household income, productivity, self-esteem and future ability to ensure the satisfaction of food needs in the family.

Structural change and empowerment of the poor
can have huge impact on the lives of urban women


The right to adequate food is nearly universally recognised but rarely respected. Man' discussion of food security and the right to food have focused on rural areas as have discussions of food security and many donor-funded projects. Donors have at times been hesitant to support projects designed to improve food security in urban areas, thinking that they would contribute to attracting rural people to cities. But the right to food is not any less absolute for urban than for rural dwellers. In spite of the macro-economic factors that have constrained public expenditure on cities, access to food for all urban dwellers must be ensured.

The world's ten largest urban agglomerations by the year 2000

Additional Reading:

UNICEF and IFPRI. The urban poor and household food security: Concepts, evidence and case studies. UNICEF Urban Examples, vol.19, Nov. 1994.
United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (Habitat). Compendium of Human Settlements Statistics 1995.

This fact sheet was contributed by UNICEF For further information, please contact:
UNICEF One UN Plaza, New York, NY 10017, U.S.A
Tel: (001) 212 326-7000
Fax: (001) 212 503-0374

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