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What is the role of social relations and networks in household food security and nutrition?

My ability to access and consume nutritious food is to some extent an outcome of my membership and relationships with other members of society: as a daughter, a sister, a mother, a daughter-in-law, aunt, cousin, grandchild, development sociologist, employee, land owner, student, and citizen. I am able to access nutritious foods from any of my relations, networks and market through gifting, exchange, loaning or purchase. My case is similar and dissimilar to that of many others. What has changed so that individuals and households are no longer able to rely on their membership in society for assistance in times of need? To identify and discuss success stories, challenges and way forward to achieving food and nutritional security, this discussion focuses on social relations and networks for food security and nutrition.

My name is Eileen Omosa, a graduate student at the University of Alberta, currently writing a dissertation on `influential factors in household decision-making on choice of land tenure, Kenya’. I also work as a Research Analyst on a study project on food choices in the perinatal period. Before going back for further studies, I spent over ten years working and learning with rural communities in Kenya and in the Eastern and Southern Africa region on the thematic areas of land tenure, forestry and food security, gender relations, cross border collaborative networks, and the management of natural resources-based conflicts. One of the important lessons I have learned from my working with rural land users is that an individual’s level of attachment to their community to an extent determines their level of social-economic wellbeing, and that individuals and households with less attachment to community tend to rely more on intensified agricultural production, or resort to the market to fulfil their food security and nutritional requirements. Does it have to be one or the other way, i.e. strong social relations or the market?

As a young girl growing up in rural Kenya, my family had access to land on which we cultivated a variety of food crops including maize and bananas, vegetables and fruits, and reared cows and goats. However, our family still lacked foods such as fish, millet, potatoes, cassava, and ground nuts, which we sourced from relatives (gifted, loaned, exchanged) or from neighbouring tribes through barter trade or purchase ( Our other sources of food transcended blood relations and friendships to include groups traditionally considered to be `enemy’ tribes. Relations with such groups were made possible through marriage and peace pacts for the sake of accessing required foods that were limited to such communities. The most practical relational and friendship-based practice I witnessed is that of loaning and gifting livestock to households who cannot afford to purchase a cow or milk yet they have infants and young children who require milk for good nutrition. In such a case, households endowed with more livestock (my parents give out cows to needy families to date) give a milk cow to a family in need (gosagaria, no equivalent English term) on condition that the receiving family takes good care of the cow (feeds, medical, physical living conditions) and in return benefit by consuming milk from the cow. The agreement is that the cow and any resulting offspring remain the property of the cow giver, to be returned after an agreed upon period of time or on demand. To continue keeping the cow, the receiving family works on maintaining good relations with the giving family. Similarly, the giving family treats the receiving family with respect because as relatives, friends or neighbours, the receiving family too could have a rare product such as vegetables or a skill to give, and such good deeds are believed to bring blessings in the form of good health or wealth to the giving family.

Subsequently, our further discussions will relate to the influential role of social relations and networks (formal and informal) in the achievement of food security and nutrition at the household level. Further input to the discussions to be guided by the following issues:

  1. What is your understanding of social relations and networks in food and nutritional security, and do you have examples of the role they play in the attainment of food and nutritional security?
  2. What are some of the challenges facing social relations and networks in food and nutritional security?
  3. Success stories of examples of social relations and networks that have adapted to our changing environments.
  4. What roles can civil society, private sector and governments play to strengthen the application of social relations and networks for food security and nutrition?

Eileen Omosa

This discussion is now closed. Please contact for any further information.


This conversation follows the testimonies we’ve heard from our group members on their experiences securing food in different geo-economic settings: urban, sub-urban and rural. What they’ve generally shared, with the exception of the suburban and rural areas, is that accessing food though social connections and not through private means, is very difficult. We think this is because the model that’s so successful in Ms. Omosa’s Kenyan village and our own Liza’s Wakenaam- and that’s based on trust, cooperation, benevolence, and a kind of social policing to keep strayers from the norm in check, can’t be easily replicated in an urban locale.

But do these social associations in the city necessarily have to take the form of what we saw in Wakenaam or Linden? In fact, these experiences aren’t even duplicated in many similar rural and suburban villages, particularly in those that aren’t heavily agro-based. Rural communities like Wakenaam complain of dwindling supplies of food from their own community and island farmers that can’t be easily supplemented by kitchen gardens. Farmers point to the unpredictable weather, the lack of irrigation, high costs of production- mainly from the increasing prices of inputs- and so on.

What’s needed is an eco-system, meaning that the system is largely self-sustaining; an eco-system that allows communities to establish groups driven first by personal needs to secure nutritious and cheap food. We advise that producers and consumers form self-help groups- grassroots organizations and the more formal cooperatives- to provide and to obtain respectively a sustainable supply of food. The FAO has identified in its project document on the value of cooperatives, Building Innovative Institutions for Food Security that the first step for any small farmers is to work together in groups to address their immediate practical or survival needs or shared interests relating to food security. Shermain says about Linden:

“Farmers are unable to provide a sustainable amount of produce for supply in Linden, especially with the increase in prices for farm inputs and the cost of marketing. Thus, many of them have to travel to the big city, Georgetown to purchase goods for resale in Linden. Through a farmer’s cooperative, the farmers can purchase farm inputs in bulk which makes it cheaper to access and in some cases the inputs like heavy machinery can even be shared. A simple initiative which was done in Linden by West Watooka farmers was to secure a prime spot near the Wismar/Mackenzie bridge linking the two villages too establish a Sunday market. The market was maintained collectively, all costs and insurance associated coved jointly. And, this was driven by the frustration of local farmers fed up with their produce being wasted from no available markets.”

The cooperative model can also be applied to large groups of consumers, in any setting. In most parts of Guyana-city, country- we have a simple, extremely effective way of raising money: the Box Hand. It’s a way of saving money that requires a large group of people and strong policing. Yet, it works and it’s popular among working groups in cities in particular, which flouts the popular notion that everyone in a city is an island, cut off from the rest and sustaining only itself. Consumers can form cooperatives formally to purchase bulk produce and access loans for food or small groups of friends may form food clubs to do the same. In either case, the decision to form these groups is made through shared interests and goals. 

UG Agricultural Economics Focus 2014 University of Guyana, Guyana
UG Agricultural Economics

This post seeks to show how the civil society, private sector and government can play a role in strengthen the application of social relations and networks for food security and nutrition from the perspective of the students of Group 6, Agriculture Economics, University of Guyana.

The civil society, private sector and government can play a role in strengthening the application of social relations and networks for food security and nutrition. Social relations play a major role in food security around the world in most rural areas; most farms are located in the rural areas. Prior to marketing their produce, there was the presence of self-sufficiency in the rural community, so if a family does not produce a certain kind of food they would trade with their neighbors and also give away excess foods to other neighbor who does not have a farm of their own the persons living in rural areas is like an extended family. The urban areas on the other hand, people do not share excess food or do self-sufficiency so they compete for the limited food available to them, and because most food items are expensive you would never find urban citizens giving or sharing food with others. Families living in urban areas most times do not socialize with other families due to the hours of work and after school activities, so we find that some persons don’t even know their neighbors. The civil society, private sector and government can all play major roles in strengthening social relations and networks for food security. The above mentioned groups can play a major role by investing in educational seminars in the area, informing the citizen of improving access their access to nutritious food by working together. These seminars should involve; Community residents, the local health department, civic organizations and neighborhood commissions and schools or colleges. They should provide information on starting food cooperatives, community buying clubs (purchasing food in bulks to get it at farm gate prices), the usage of food Kiosks (local or community farmers), and the establishment of community farms and farmer’s market. The CSOs, private sectors and government can also plan a local food fair in the community, this will encourage local farmers to showcase their produce to other residence and this will help in the establishment of trust among residence which encourages more local purchases and also allow them to interact with each other by sharing farming and health tips. The above mentioned approach by the CSOs, private sector and government encourages social relations among residents, since it allows them to participate and interact with each other. This kind of communication develops trust so person will be more comfortable purchasing produce, working together and sharing with each other. This would improve the overall access to food in the entire community, resident’s participation and development of the community.

Future of Agricultural Economics

The immediate family is the first interaction that an individual will ever experience from the time they enter this world; that is, all the morals, ethics, manners, nutritional habits and anything relating to the social development of anyone all starts in the home. We would like to steer this post in the direction of the nutritional habits that are formed in an individual’s immediate social interaction at home.

Family plays a very important role in the nutrition of its members. Usually most nutritional habits are not by the individual’s own decision, but because that individual was born into that way of life in their household or because of some constraint or another. For instance, if someone is born into a vegetarian family they will most likely develop vegetarian habits; if an individual is born into a family who lives in poverty then that individual may be constraint to a different diet from someone who is better off; if an individual is born into a busy working class family then they will probably eat a lot of fast food than those individuals who have persons to prepare home cooked food. Given these scenarios, it can be seen that the nutrition of individuals are habits that are formed in the home and some of these habits may not be by choice but by constraints such as time and finances.

It is also known that habits are hard to be broken, especially when it is an instilled way of life. Hence, major intervention will be needed in order to reach out to the different types of families and their different cultures in society in order to break the bad nutritional habits in pursuit of a healthier life. These interventions can be in the form of public awareness that there is malnutrition in society through the civil society, private sector and government by means of the media in terms of advertisements.  Another worthy venture to intervene is through public outreach programmes such home garden/farm or community farm establishment in order to grow healthier food for those who cannot afford to buy and those who are too busy to go to the markets.

agri econs5 University of Guyana, Guyana

What are some of the challenges facing social relations and networks in food and nutritional security

Social relations among farmers provide many important services and promote food security. In relation to this forum the group would like to focus on the manner in which credit has influenced food security. It is a widely accepted fact that while small farmers are important in a world where the population is growing they are also hampered by a variety of problems which may include: price volatility and limited access to credit and insurance.  In Guyana, it can be observed that the rural area which is home to many farmers has a closely knit community in which farmers engage in barter whether it’s in the form of gifts or loans. Small farmers are assumed to have a preference for or are likely to pursue the acquisition of funds via the informal market. The informal market in this instance refers to money lenders in the form of a neighbor, a familiar trader, or family. It is also assumed that small farmers prefer not to use the financial institutions (formal market) because  they lack sufficient collateral. Thus, the general consensus is that small farmers prefer to utilize the informal market because they may be unable to access loans through the formal financial institutions due to a lack of capital and also because they may be perceived as high risk clients thereby attracting higher interest rates.

Small Farmers due to financial constraints are unlikely to hold liquid assets and more likely to hold assets such as a land in a nearby community or livestock. As a result, when farmers need credit they are most likely to acquire funding from money lenders within the rural community. However informal markets also have their shortcomings in that farmers are exposed to the exploitative behavior of the “loan sharks” since they are likely to pay an above market interest rate or farmers may be coerced into purchasing the trader’s input only .These exploitative behaviours may only serve to impoverish small farmers and this creates a serious challenge for food security.

It can be observed that governments have experimented with the use of varying policies to promote food security. It is also well agreed upon by all that the credit policy is the best alternative because it does not inject any form of distortions within the market .The importance of credit is not to be understated since it promotes the use of capital and inputs by farmers .To remedy this credit problem donor agencies and government have utilized programmes which are supply led credit policies which are unsustainable because they have a high default rate and poor supervision of the loans. Governments invest heavily in these programmes because small farmers generally have a slow adoption rate of technology.

On the other side of the coin, the problem of fungibility exists whereby farmers utilize the credit but not for its designated purpose. For example, the farmer may divert the money from increased farm inputs to increased food consumption. This may result in slower growth in the agricultural sector and may even put programmes and financial institutions at risk. In other studies done the market driven approach has been highly successful as adduced in the case study of Mozambique.

“impressive progress in rural production and development has clearly been achieved. With market-driven approach and an improved policy environment focused on small-scale producers, the process of rural recovery has started. The total production of cereals increased from 239 000 tons in 1992 to 1.8 million tons in 2001, and the north and the centre of the country now regularly generate surpluses for export”[1]

In conclusion, the group believes that a public private partnership between financial intermediaries(whereby the financial intermediaries supervise the farmer's allocation of resources) and the government(provide technical expertise and subsided loans) can aid in the alleviation of these problems faced by farmers. 



How do people who already have access to food security and nutrition utilize social relations and networks to better the lives of the less fortunate?

It is said that the quantity of food being produced on a daily basis is more than enough needed to feed the world; still, the world is becoming increasingly populated with malnutrition and persons dying of hunger. It is our belief that good social relations and networks in household food security and nutrition can help to alleviate this problem. The individuals that already have access to food security and nutrition can utilize social relations and networks not only to further help themselves but persons who do not have access to food security.

Social relations and networks such as connections with governmental organizations and other institutions (NGOs, etc.) of which can provide safety nets designed to promote better management of unexpected shocks and, in the longer term, reduce chronic poverty for the most vulnerable individuals or households.[1] Such relations can boost the resources of households, example; the distribution of food and money or vouchers. Therefore, individuals with access to Food Security can help others by getting involved in community work as well as participation in health programmes and training in exchange for food distribution for the less fortunate.

Social relations and networks like these allow households to cover their immediate food needs, not to mention other essential items of expenditure such as health and education. Unlike emergency interventions, these social relations and networks can be enforced which enables households to keep hold of their possessions and production tools (e.g. animals, implements, land) during difficult periods (lengthy spells between harvests, crop failure), making it possible ultimately to reinforce and stimulate the local economy.

In concluding, people who already have access to Food Security and nutrition can utilize social relations and networks to help those that are less fortunate to have such. They can form alliances with organizations hence, creating a network chain to mitigate the problem of increasing malnutrition and poverty in the world.

[1] Food Security: Understanding and Meeting the Challenge of Poverty

Emilia Venetsanou freelancer, Italy
Emilia Venetsanou

I would definitively like to see going on honest and courageous applicable research (Action – Research – Training) on the social determinants of Food and Nutritional Security. That also means that budget has to be allocated for.

On the agenda of such applicable research, the dimension of social differentiation and inequality within communities (including its smaller social unities as nuclear family) has to be among the topic issues. Policy-makers and development practitioners should not turn a blind eye to the dynamics of social differentiation and their consequences to food security.

To give a trivial example. When a nutritionist starts his/her work in a community has to reach a good understanding of families’ internal dynamics and the role / position of women. What is the position of each family-unit within the whole group is equally important. And so on. That is about a sociological analysis to be carried on. But it has to be dynamic and fully relying on a participatory approach. Therefore, I speak about “Action – Research – Training”.

Another example could be the case of design, implementation and monitoring of Social Protection schemes. What are the internal dynamics, endowments of the several groups, how all that work together? How work the traditional safety / solidarity systems and what are their deeper dynamics and which their effects in the maintenance or transformation of the productive system as a whole? Which are the engine-factors and which the blocking-factors. To only just list ones.

Eventually, I wish that our our contributions to a public debate are honestly taken into account, and that public debate is an authentic channel for making voices heard. I consider important seeing into the final wrapping up all the core ideas herein expressed, if not public debate just will not make much sense.

To help the facilitator on her wrapping-up tasks, the core idea that I put forward is about budget allocation at all relevant programmes and projects for applicable research relying on participatory approach “Action – Research – Training” addressing: a) social differentiation and inequality within communities and their consequences to food security and b) social determinants of Food and Nutritional Security.


Dr. Eileen Omosa We Grow Ideas, Canada

Come, we need to end our discussion in style

To date, you have shared information on the different roles played by social relations and networks in food security: helps us define the quality of our communities, determine outcomes from development projects, enables members to spread risk, an important tool for education, and a way through which to understand a people, among many other roles.

To conclude our discussions,

Please pick one or two roles listed above or generate a new one and provide details on how you would like to see social relations and networks applied in the future.

Example: In the future I would like to see more nutritionists use social networks as a  vehicle for educating and sharing information with mothers. The information can be in the form of the different food groups, food combinations to achieve a balanced diet, foods of nutritional value to infants, for prenatal, postnatal periods etc, etc.  

That way, each one of us leaves the on-line discussion table with a self-assigned activity to implement.

Eileen Omosa

L. W. Gichaga United States of America
L. W.

Excited to find this intriguing topic on #FoodSecurity and #SocialRelations:

First, reading through the intro, I notice that just as food has been important to all generations, the means to acquire food may not have fundamentally changed but instead, there has been replacement of the means of exchange and acquisition of food by individuals and families. 

On social relations and networks in food and nutritional security, I’ll throw the gender factor that is quite apparent! There has been a lot of talk of women being the main producers of food as small scale farmers but there is more to that. I can argue that a household’s food security and nutrition is managed by the one who controls food acquisition, food storage, food portions (think nutrition, obesity …), recycling, and controlling wastage. For example, I recall that there used to be local training for mothers about food security and nutrition and it literally changed our diet at home and the nature of our kitchen garden. My recollection of first learning about food groups and nutrition began then when my mom got involved with such a local group. Food wastage habits that we had earlier - say eating an entire banana bunch of 20 at one occasion, ceased with education that we could stretch them to provide [[new term then!]] fruit/vitamin for an entire week. This applies to many other areas like meat portions, storage ideas, recycling.

Point: Since the lady of the house is the most influential figure in decisions about food usage, strong social relations supported by education in general and specifically by what I call ‘food-literacy’ has an impact on household food security and by extension a nation’s.

Stability in social relations is crucial to strengthen the roles in the household for attaining and maintaining food security and nutrition.  The male and female contributions are daily synchronized roles that are both crucial. The reverse will reveal the depth of this idea. Instability in social relations through external (read political) and internal conflict (read family) will stifle food availability, and nutritional planning for a healthy life, or introduce wastage, wrong choices, then depreciate to higher vulnerability, the story goes on …

 Challenges facing social relations and networks in food and nutritional security are all related to poverty. Land ownership, literacy, purchasing power … Lowering a household vulnerability through elevating the family’s’ lifestyle is a regional and national mandate, as well as individual household mandate through seeking self-improvement avenues. The civil society and private sector must be sensitized to the issue of food security and nutrition through FSN-supportive health campaigns and government policy (from food standards, safety, prices protection….), so as to make it a cultural priority to defend the individual household’s FSN.

Great forum. Thanks.  


In this industrialized era that we now live, there is an obvious dwindling in social co-operation toward matters of food and nutrition. However negative that may sound, it seems almost natural. Consider when social relations and networks for food security and nutrition was at its most prevalent: in times and areas where subsistence farming was a way of life, and in times of disaster.

As it relates to subsistence farming, we should realise that no single household is going to be able to provide a full-course meal for themselves. it makes far more sense for families to specialise. Therefore, in a given community, perhaps one household specialised in rearing of livestock for meats and milk, and another household took charge in the growing of fruits and vegetables. It makes perfect sense for these two households to trade in such a manner that both families are adequately provided with nutritional foods. However, with most regions of the world tending toward an industrialsed, urbanised lifestyle, it is clear why social relations/networks is now a less potent factor in determining one's food security. Most farmers conduct their activities with intentions to sell their produce on the market, and while social relations could still land you being gifted with fuits, vegetables, and even meats, it is to a lesser extent and cannot be expected to provide sustainable food security.

As an example, I have close family members who own a farm. My relation with them earns me perhaps two handfuls of peppers, and a basket of fruit. These gifts, while appreciated, could hardly be considered "food security". It is simply a display of generosity, and without a farm of my own, I am in no position to reciprocate. This in itself is a challenge: What happens when a household has little or nothing to offer? Would it be acceptable in the networking of food to allow freeriders?

On the second point, let me begin by saying that there is no greater catalyst for human co-operation than disaster and tragedy. For example, in the event of a natural disaster, it seems an automatic reaction for immediate neighbours, neighbouring towns, and neighbouring countries to extend their hands to the victims of that tragedy. However, it is usually only to the point where those affected can get back onto their own feet and once again provide for themselves.

To recap, it is evident that social relations/networks in food security and nutrition are at their most important in two situations:

1. Necessity of trade/barter; 

2. In times of dire need.

Bearing that in mind, and also an ever-growing urban lifestyle, the causes for the deterioration of social relations/netowrking in food security is plain to see. Will the remedy, however, be so blatantly apparent?

UG2014 Group 8 University of Guyana, Guyana

“It occurs to me that our survival may depend upon our talking to one another.” 
― Dan SimmonsHyperion

Our relations with one another are likely to go a long way in our success or failures. In terms of household food security and nutrition, our social relations and networks can assist greatly for those who are in need or lacking food and nutrition. In this comment we intend to address the first question outlined by the moderator, in relation to our country, Guyana.

·         What is your understanding of social relations and networks in food and nutritional security, and do you have examples of the role they play in the attainment of food and nutritional security?

Food security is defined as having the physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet the dietary needs and food preferences of an active and healthy life at all times.[1] In the context of this comment we are assuming that social relations in society come from a citizen’s association with family, neighbours and the community. We believe networks are somewhat correlated with one’s social relationships as networks stems from one’s association in various circles in society e.g. work, community and education.

Social issues that can have a negative impact on families are single parent homes (mother and her children), poverty stricken families, extended families (only few persons work). The impact of such can cause families to be food insecure. However, good social relationships with the community can assist with food shortages. For example religious institutions and charities usually assist by way of feeding programs and dry goods hampers. The Government also has various school feeding programs, in this way the school children benefit from a hot meal due to their educational network.

We are of the view that rural societies can deal with social ills and food insecurity better than those of urban societies. In rural communities, where there are single parent homes or extended families, there are kitchen gardens and/or farms that ensure the family has food. These families are well connected with other families and tend to share their produce among the community. That way each family would have a wider variety of food.

Our country, The Co-operative Republic of Guyana, has a history of many co-operative societies. This has added to the inherent nature of Guyanese to socialise and share with one another in their respective networks. This improved the food security situation in our country. Guyana has halved its proportion of population that’s suffering from hunger and is thus making great strides towards achieving MDG: Eradicate Extreme Poverty and Hunger.


Lemke, S, H H Vorster, N S Van Rensburg, and J Ziche. "Empowered women, social networks and the contribution of qualitative research: broadening our understanding of underlying causes for food and nutrition insecurity." Public Health Nutrition, 2003: 759-764.

United Nations Development Program. Goal 1: Eradicate Extreme Poverty and Hunger. 2012. (accessed October 28, 2013).

[1] (Lemke, et al. 2003)