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 (http://www.eileenomosa.com/myths-on-my-food1/2013/7/28/toothless-yet-the-community-feeds-them-on-fish-beans-nuts). 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

Cette discussion est fermée. Contactez fsn-moderator@fao.org pour tous renseignements.

UGAgri Group7 University of Guyana, Guyana

The role that social relations and networks play in achieving food and nutritional security has to do with a number of things, the least of which is trust. You could say that trust is the overriding value that stands constant when this role is by turns, added to and diminished by factors such as the preservation of food in traditions and cultures on one hand, and increasing urbanization on the other.

The moderator asked, “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?” It’s almost reflexive to say urbanization. But not urbanization exactly, more like what urbanization represents: Less reliance on local markets supplied by family-based farmers who you probably would've known if you were living in a rural area. Much smaller families so there's less of an extended family effect in the sharing of household tasks and the passing down of traditions. And then there's the economic situation: living in a city is wholly different from the rural scene of farms and kitchen gardens. Supermarket and town markets are substituted for homegrown because the (opportunity) cost of self-sufficiency in the city is way too high. The million dollar question is: does this mean that, as an urban dweller, you cannot rely on family and community networks to provide or supplement your food needs anymore? Here’s what our group member, Liza, says about moving from a rural island to the city, and what she has experienced in the transition that’s affected her ability to access food.

“Wakenaam is a rural island in Guyana with a population of approximately 10,000. In Wakenaam, almost every other house has a kitchen garden which is enough to feed the entire island. There are social relations and networking among Wakenaam villagers which sustains the island food-wise. Families with their produces will either sell some of their produce, barter with others who have different produces or give to poor persons of society, thus no one is left to starve or hungry. Also if someone doesn’t have the money to purchase the vegetable, the family farmers will give them credit until they can pay for it. Everyone will have access to fresh vegetables that are nutritious.   

“However, in the urban, almost city area where I moved to, I don’t even know who my neighbors are. Everything I consume comes from supermarkets, where foods stuffs are already clean and packaged. If I don’t have the money to purchase food stuffs, I will surely starve. No credit is given to you in the city. It’s been my observation that there are far more hungry people in the city. Though I visit my family in Wakenaam only every few months, maybe twice in 3 months, I always bring back food, mostly fruits which are very expensive at local markets where I live in the city. I cook most of what I eat and share with my sister and roommate; we don’t share food with friends in the city, and we don’t have any family close by so any immediate secondary source of food is not an option."

                In another post, another group member will describe her experiences in travelling weekly between her apartment nearby the university and her home some 65 miles and two hours away. Liza’s statement, however, show clearly how trust, or the lack of it, colours the social interactions between people. People in rural areas take it for granted until it can’t be easily shared in an urban setting. 

Raymond Enoch NAAHM, Nigeria

Dear All

the discussion on the role of social relations and networks in household food security and nutrition is critical if we are to move forward.

The social relations and networks are no doubt elements and instrument of education, information sharing of best practices and vehicle to drive policy options. It is in this context that I join the discussion.

I will be making a more in-depth contributions on this

Raymond Enoch

NAAHM Nigeria and Chair West Africa

Pia Pacheco Argentina

Gracias Eileen por empezar este interesante debate. Estoy de acuerdo en que las relaciones sociales, las redes que un individuo, familia o comunidad pueden crear y sostener son fundamentales para garantizar su seguridad alimentaria. Yo quiero hablar de las relaciones extracomunitarias y distantes de la localidad que  influyen en las redes locales.

Vivo en la capital de mi país pero he recorrido y trabajado con muchas comunidades indígenas distantes y aisladas. Muchas de estas comunidades viven en situaciones de extrema pobreza y son víctimas de discriminación. En los últimos años la frontera agrícola y petrolera ha avanzado sobre los territorios de uso de las comunidades indígenas (territorios de marisca, caza, pesca, recolección), afectando brutalmente sus medios de vida.

Algunos referentes de estas comunidades lograron salir de sus provincias y hacer contacto directo con instituciones a nivel nacional, logrando que algunos agentes/funcionarios visiten sus comunidades, se enteren de su realidad y logrando de algun modo un compromiso de gestión.

En momentos de crisis estas relaciones  cumplen un rol  importante. La mayoría de los referentes tienen un teléfono celular y es a través de mensajes tales como: "llamame" , "nos desalojan", hay "desmonte", etc. que consiguen llamar la atención a nivel central del gobierno federal y evitar la discriminación o invisibilización que sufren en las localidades. De esta manera están luchando para conservar sus territorios de uso y consiguiendo ayuda para garantizar su seguridad alimentaria a través de proyectos con instituciones estatales y también con donaciones particulares de semillas, herramientas de labranza y mercaderías.

Dr. Claudio Schuftan PHM, Viet Nam

1.  When we talk about HH FS, we too often forget HH fuel security and the issues of its physical and economic access and an issue of tremendous environmental consequences (firewood, charcoal).

2. More related to social relations and networks is what all online discussions so far have omitted. I refer to the 'care' element in the causality of malnutrition. It cannot be overemphasized that MN is an outcome of a pyramid of causation (UNICEF 1990). Three are the underlying causes, namely HH FS, care and access to health and sanitation. Addressing FS is necessary but not sufficient to influence the outcome!.  Well, care relates to the the mother's wellbeing during pregnancy and lactation, as well as to the mother/child binomium; and breastfeeding (the first food) is at the very center with much more than its nutritional importance including all aspects of bonding: and that is related to social networks [family support (husband and extended family), lactation legislation (maternity leave and creches)]. Networks are also involved, especially existing networks of women promoting breastfeeeding (WABA, La Leche League, etc). Issues of alleviating the mother's chores during pregnancy and lactation should also be kept in mind; the role of the husband being crucial.

Bottom line, these issues are key to HH FS and are clearly some of its important determinants.



University of Guyana

Greetings to all readers and the moderator.

This is an interesting topic to observe as, it is one in which at the micro level, shifts in behavioural patterns can alter the brute reality of poverty and hunger.
The issue for examination (and probably the success of such a concept) however necessarily hinges upon the area in society with which we are making the observation. 

It can largely be agreed upon that there are three general categories of society with respect to geographical composition- urban, sub-urban and rural provinces. As the adage indicates, 'The poor will always be with us' and therein, we premise that in each of these categories of society, there will exist some poverty and its consequential implications (honing in on hunger in this case.) It can also generally be assumed, to a large degree of certainity, that the lifestyles of each of these provinces will be different. We will observe their lifestyles in relation to time available, population density, stress levels, health and community relations.

Generally the succeeding are the overview of each province and their corresponding lifestyle:

  1. Urban Province
    Extremely Busy Lifestyle, High Population Density, High Stress Levels, Poor/Ailing Health, Minimal Relations with Neighbours
  2. Sub-Urban Province
    Average Lifestyle, Moderate Population Density, Average Stress Levels, Moderate to Very Healthy, Good Relations with Neighbours
  3. Rural Province
    Sendentary to Relaxed Lifestyle, Low Population Density, Low to Average Stress Levels, Moderate to Very Healthy, Strong Relations with Neighbours

Herein, we find it necessary to observe the effect/anticipated outcome of the concept relative to each province given their lifestyle differences.

Rural Province
Dependence upon a concept of this nature, in our opinion, would be successful in a rural province, given the nature of the lifestyle. In the preamble that was given, it was even mentioned that this act of gratitude occurred in rural Kenya. (Contention with this example will be expounded on in subsequent posts) Given the strong relations with neighbours and deeper sense of community bonding, the rural provinces would stand the best chance of success.

Sub-Urban Province
Given the nature of the 'Suburb' area, poverty levels are usually low. With the good community relations that exist in these areas, once a group/organization comprising of community members is established, it is anticipated that an alleviation of hunger should occur.

Urban Province
This is where the drawback of this concept would exhibit itself the most and it is the area that should cause the largest degree of worry given the very nature of the lifestyle. Inflating that fact is the antagonizing phenomenon of 'Poverty Urbanization', where more than 50M persons have internally migrated to urban areas and the rate of poverty urbanization exceeds the rate of urbanization. (Finance & Development Magazine September 2007, Volume 44, Number 3- Released by IMF)

It is therefore not to be taken for granted when dealing with the concept that success and implementation would result in alleviation in every province. We will detail each province and its specific implications relative to questions posited, in subsequent posts. We ardently anticipate fruitful discussions.




Mr. Subhash Mehta Devarao Shivaram Trust, India

‘Make agriculture truly sustainable now for food security in a changing climate’

UN agencies have taken the initiative over the last 5 years to support holistic solutions for the long term sustainability of over 2 billion hungry, malnourished, poor, deep in debt rural producer communities, with UNCTAD’s TER of September 18, 2013, taking the ARES, World Bank, etc., head on, urging for a 'Paradigm shift in agriculture' IAR4D needs attached and for us to 'Wake up before it is too late', read TER at:



Communities followed integrated agriculture system of their area to produce nutritious food for their own needs and at little or no cost, before the arrival of their colonial rulers, For serving their political and commercial interests, farms were converted to produce mono crops importing high cost agro chemical inputs, converting more and more land for commercial crops like cotton, tea, coffee, jute, rubber, sugarcane, etc., reducing the land for production of nutritious food by the smallholder producer communities for their own/ country needs. Policies, rules and regulations focused on commercial mono crops,, resulting in the decrease of purchasing power, taxing rural producers, increasing cost of production, resulting  in the decrease of farm produce prices and or producers’ net incomes. The resulting decrease in smallholder farm production and  availability of nutritious food, lead to hunger, malnutrition, debt, poverty, scarcity and famine like conditions from time to time especially during the world wars and after independence (early 1960 in India).

After many countries became independent from colonial rule, large sums of money were made available as aid for development of agriculture by the erstwhile colonial powers as well as the USA, with subtle conditions attached, eg.,  USAID made provisions to give grants for scientists’  advance studies in the land grant universities of the USA, where the curricula focused on mechanized industrial green revolution (GR) technologies (most farms being over 100 hectares), training them as specialists, with little or no knowledge about the integrated low cost agriculture of different  areas in their country and sustainable in the long term for the smallholder producers. Most on return, made the agriculture policies of their country, continued to serve the commercial interest of the North (Europe/ USA/ Canada/ Australia), implemented their industrial agriculture models, using AID funds, ensuring continuation of their commercial interests (mono crops), primarily to keep down the world prices of agricultural commodities, like rice, wheat, maize, cotton, rubber, tea, coffee, etc, loosing focus on producing nutritious food, following the low cost integrated agriculture and management practices (GAP), etc., essential for meeting their own safe and nutritious food needs and the long term sustainability of the producer communities and markets in the vicinity.

The continuing focus on commercial crops lead to shortages, scarcity and famine like conditions in the sixties, creating a panic among policy makers [mostly scientists staffing agriculture research & education systems (ARES), most Central and State Government covering agriculture departments, mostly specialists, opening the flood gates for  GR  technologies being forced on all farmers, as part of official extension programmes and schemes (subsidies) of the Government, especially in the irrigated areas of the country. The use of agro chemicals on rich soils built over centuries, did increase productivity for a while, temporarily solving the immediate problem of shortages by meeting supply side but ignoring the demand side of producers’ access to required knowledge and management to produce nutritious food needs of the rural producer communities/ contry.

However, in about ten years there was enough evidence documented that the GR productivity had plateau and decreasing in most areas, requiring increasing quantities and higher prices for fertilizer, seed and water each year. Added to this was the global oil crisis since the 70’s, resulting in the huge increase in the costs of fossil fuel imports, transportation, production of agro chemicals, etc., making conventional farming unviable and forcing governments to subsidies production of external inputs. In spite of subsidies, the purchasing power (mono crops) and net incomes of farmers, especially smallholder producer communities reduced each year (often below cost of production) resulting in rural hunger, malnutrition, poverty, suicides and climate change.

If you are not already familiar with Foods of Association: Biocultural Perspectives on Foods and Beverages that Mediate Sociability by Nina Etkin I encourage you to read it, you may find her work in West Africa interesting as a comparison to your work in Kenya. Others interested in this topic may find it of interest as well, and it is easy to read.

Kazi njema,



Pamela Pozarny FAO, Italy

This is an important topic and regretfully undervalued to date, in understanding actual socioeconomic dyanamics at community level and how these can promote and foster improved household resilience, food security and nutrition, and overall livelihoods. Social scientists among the range of experts working in rural development-food security sectors have typically appreciated the power and vitality of social relations in rural communities (I am particularly thinking about Africa based on my own experiences), including how they are often (overlooked) determining factors in reaching (and also inhibiting) targeted, envisaged outcomes and impacts of supporting policies/programmes/projects. Building on those positive existing social, usually customary and traditional-based practices to contribute to and reinforce development objectives is advised and we should advocate for greater analysis, understanding and incorporation of these sometimes complex inter-relations into our policy and programme design and implementation work. This analysis is particularly relevant to promoting inclusion and equitable access to resources and assets provided to households/communities, for example through government programmes, as it propvides greater understanding of "how" households actually use, allocate, share or retain benefits.

I wish to provide as one example among others which we are working on in FAO under the from Protection to Production (PtoP) project, which is an impact evaluation using a mixed methods approach to understanding impacts, and economic impacts more specifically, of cash transfer programmes in SSA at the household, community levels, and on social networks in particular. I believe our qualitative findings from analysis of the Ghana Livelihood Empowerment Against Poverty (LEAP) cash transfer demonstrate best the role of social networks in rural communities (italics my own):

"Despite high poverty levels and livelihood insecurity, the fieldwork confirmed a reasonably high level of contribution-based social networking in poor rural areas. These networks were often fragile, however. A lack of trust to pay fees and the necessary dues for these groups was one reason why groups might dissolve and then reform. For the potentially vulnerable in general, and for the LEAP beneficiaries in particular, it was very important to spread risk by trying to maintain links with social networks, with the most important risk-sharing network being the extended family. Beyond its impact on beneficiary self esteem and hope, the LEAP transfer enabled beneficiaries to enter, or ‘re-enter’, existing contribution-based social and socio-economic networks."

And further,

"Crucially, the introduction of LEAP had enabled many beneficiary households to ‘re-enter’ their extended family network, helping them to move from isolation and vulnerability to inclusion and risk sharing. In some instances beneficiaries had even been able to turn provider, loaning to other family members in trouble. In the Fante society of the Central Region, the LEAP transfer enabled beneficiaries to contribute to extended family networks through the ‘family levy’ (abusua to). This contribution is mainly for risk sharing around burial and funeral party costs. This is an ad hoc contribution so the LEAP transfer enabled beneficiaries to keep money aside for this expenditure. One beneficiary in Agona Abrim, Central Region, explained how even before LEAP she would still pay her family levy using family remittances. If you stopped contributing then, ‘if you die you will be buried without a coffin’. The importance of a decent burial in Fante society cannot be overstated: ‘People pay more respect to your coffin than when you are alive’. Extended family members, knowing that the LEAP contribution eases the burden of their support, were now more likely to provide support to beneficiaries. Beneficiaries in Agona Abrim ironically noted this change of position that financial contribution brings: ‘Now when someone dies, they say "come come"!"

As demonstrated, social networks in rural communities in Ghana serve as a safety net in themselves (e.g. food, cash) and an avenue towards increasing inclusion, participation, voice and engaments among all  members of the community, including the most vulnerable. Ghana and other completed studies from countries covered under the project can be found on the PtoP website: http://www.fao.org/economic/PtoP/en/.

Please find a link to the Ghana research brief and to the full report.  

George Kent Department of Political Science, University of Hawai'i, États-Unis d'Amérique

Greetings –

I would like to express my deep gratitude to Eileen Omosa for opening this discussion of the role of social relations in establishing food security. I think the quality of the community in which individuals and families are embedded can have a big impact on food security, especially for people with low incomes.

Historically, there was a long period when cash income was of little importance. People lived close to the earth, and close to their communities. As Karl Polanyi pointed out, in what we sometimes describe as “primitive” communities, no one went hungry unless everyone was going hungry. That pattern continues today, in what some describe as “pre-modern” communities.

In recent work on this issue (current draft available at http://www2.hawaii.edu/~kent/EndingHungerLocally.docx and also attached here) I highlight the importance of caring and social support systems not only in reducing hunger where it exists, but also in preventing it from ever happening. My observations are summarized in three major points:

  • Hunger is less likely to occur where people care about one another’s well being.
  • Caring behavior is strengthened when people work and play together in pursuing values they share.
  • Therefore, hunger in any community is likely to be reduced by encouraging its people to work and play together, especially in food-related activities.

There is little likelihood that the hunger problem can be solved through market activities based on narrow self-interest. Caring is essential. It must be recognized and nurtured.

Aloha, George Kent

See the attachment:EndingHungerLocally.docx