Current Situation

The world has seen significant progress over the past 25 years in reducing food insecurity, reducing the number of undernourished from just over 1.1 billion to 795 million and the “prevalence of undernourishment” (the standard FAO indicator) from 18.6% of the world’s population to 10.9% in 2015. (FAO: The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2015) (

  • 98% of the undernourished live in developing countries and 80% of the undernourished in developing countries live in rural areas. This still leaves over 150 million people living in cities and towns, almost all in developing countries, struggling to maintain a diet sufficient for good health
  • Despite higher rates of poverty in rural areas, the incidence of food insecurity in urban areas (as measured by food energy deficiency) can equal or surpass that of rural areas. In times of food price crisis, to focus primarily on rural food insecurity and agricultural production can be shortsighted. The following table illustrates this situation in 12 of 18 selected low-income developing countries.

Access to adequate food is recognized as a “basic human right.”

(Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948)

Sustainable Development Goal 2: End Hunger, Achieve Food Security and Improved Nutrition and Promote Sustainable Agriculture

Target 2.1: By 2030, end hunger and ensure access by all people, in particular the poor and people in vulnerable situations, including infants, to safe, nutritious and sufficient food all year round

Target 2.2:  By 2030, end all forms of malnutrition, including achieving, by 2025, the internationally agreed targets on stunting and wasting in children under 5 years of age, and address the nutritional needs of adolescent girls, pregnant and lactating women and older persons.

Read The Article By Judith Hermanson

Rural and Urban Incidences of Hunger

Source: The Food Price Crisis and Urban Food (in) Security, Marc Cohen and James Garret, IIED and UNFPA Human Settlements Working Paper Series, Urbanization and Emerging Population Issues-2, 2009. – Publications.   Extracted from Ahmed et al.  The World’s Most Deprived: Characteristics and Causes of Extreme Poverty and Hunger, Environment Discussion Paper No 43, IFPRI, 2007

  • Despite slowly falling urbanization rates, virtually all population growth over the next 25 years will be in urban areas, over 90% of which will be in developing countries. (UN Habitat State of the World Cities 2012-2013).  (  Cities of the developing world are adding 70 million residents per year and by 2050 the total urban population of the developing world will more than double from 2.5 billion to 5.3 billion.  86% of the population of the more developed regions and 67% of the less developed regions will be living in cities and towns.
  • 1/3 of the developing world’s urban population lives in slums (UN Habitat Global Indicators Database 2012). In Africa over 60% of the urban population lives in slums, in Asia 30%, in Latin America 24%.
  • Many countries have enough food for the entire population but the poor have much less access to sufficient quantities of nutritional food.

"Cite Houphouet Boigny", one of 11 or more slum areas in the region of the city of Abidjan. Some of the residents have come to the area because of civil strife in the northern region of the country, others have come from nearby countries such as Mali and Burkina Faso seeking work. The government plans to raze many of the informal settlements in the coming months which are built on ground that is unstable because of rain wash or because they are too close to the ocean's edge. Meanwhile, there is no plan to resettle the displaced. HFH Cote d'Ivoire has planned a pilot program in another urban slum in the next fiscal year to show what kind of work can be done to help the housing situation of similar populations. (substand/ poverty housing)(country formerly IVORY COAST)

 Who is at Risk?

  • Urban food insecurity is strongly linked with urban poverty. While most studies of developing countries show higher rates of malnutrition in rural than urban areas, they indicate hunger can be found in urban areas as well. According to UN Habitat: “The relatively low prevalence of malnutrition in urban areas, as measured by the prevalence of underweight children, conceals significant differences in food security across socio-economic groups: this low prevalence also conceals the fact that poverty can have remarkably similar practical effects in rural and urban areas.”  (UN Habitat: State of the World’s Cities, 2010-2011) (p.100).
  • Most cities, even in the developing world, have enough food to feed their populations. Large “mega cities” source their food domestically while importing high end foods in demand by those in higher income brackets.  Secondary cities are often closer to domestic sources of food in the rural areas and import less from abroad.
  • Hunger is endemic among both the urban and rural poor in many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and Latin America. Families in urban slums and squatter settlements often suffer from worse conditions than those living in rural areas, where malnutrition among children of the poorest income brackets is more than twice as high as for those in the highest income brackets.  In the poorest countries of Sub-Saharan Africa, malnutrition among urban slum children can be as high as four times that of those living in non-slum areas.  (UN Habitat).

Why this Situation?

Multiple factors underlie the high rates of malnutrition among urban slum dwellers.  They include:

  • low incomes that limit access to both the quantity and quality of food
  • the urban poor have a less diverse diet and eat lower quality foods
  • lack of access to land restricts credit, further depressing financial resources
  • In urban areas, traditional crops are often replaced by more profitable cash crops, exacerbating the nutritional vulnerability of the poor, reducing the availability of staple foods and compounding price increases
  • Unavoidable non-food expenditures, such as the cost of transport to work and housing, education and health, as well as remittances to relatives living in rural areas, limit the resources available to purchase food
  • The urban poor have little room for manoeuvre and coping mechanisms may lead to a real loss of food security   (Cohen and Garrett., cit.)
  • Transportation issues can limit the urban poor’s access to central markets, forcing them to purchase food in small quantities from local shops at higher prices

The Price Spikes of 2005-8 and 2011

From 2005-2008 and again in 2011the world witnessed a surge in the price of basic food and the impact was felt most acutely by the urban poor.   According to the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) principal causes of the price spikes were:

  • Supply side: poor harvests, especially of wheat, lower grain stocks and the price of oil
  • Demand side: widespread inflation resulting from rapid growth of the world economy
  • Policies: export bans and restrictions, restocking in tight markets and reduced import tariffs;
  • Financial: depreciation of the US dollar. PDF  (What Caused the Food Price Spike of 2007-2008: Lessons for the World’s Cereals Markets)

Price rises attenuated somewhat in 2010 by began to increase again in 2011 to levels beyond those of 2008.  The urban poor are particularly vulnerable to food price volatility.  Consumption patterns change as families move from rural to urban areas  –increasing their intake of cereals, particularly wheat and rice at the expense of maize, cassava and sorghum.  Urban consumers also begin to diversify their diets, to include higher cost meats, fish, poultry and dairy products as well as vegetables such as tomatoes beans, spring onions and other leafy greens.   They also, for reasons of convenience, purchase more processed (but less nutritious foods) that include cooking oils, fats and sugars.  Time-pressed urban consumers also turn to more street foods and informal restaurants where food quality can be compromised. (Giddings: Unpublished paper for the Partnership to Cut Hunger and Poverty in Africa, 2012).   All of these factors can lead to higher prices for food in urban areas and unless incomes increase proportionately, the urban poor find themselves continuously struggling to secure adequate nutrition for their families.   The following table indicates that it is the poor who suffer the most from food price spikes.


Source: Cohen and Garret, op.cit.  Table extracted from the FAO, 2008 Publications

Malnutrition among the Urban Poor is not a Temporary Phenomenon

While the recent food price spikes have highlighted the plight of the urban as well as the rural poor, UN Habitat’s Monitoring Urban Inequities Programme (MUIP) has shown that serious malnutrition has been widespread among the urban and rural poor since 1990 in various African Asian and Latin American countries.  Malnutrition rates in most poor rural and urban areas have in some cases approached 20 times the 2.3% rate expected in healthy well-nourished children. (UN Habitat: State of the World’s Cities 2011-2012).  Many of the urban poor face structural food crises on an on-going basis, exacerbated during spikes in price or scarcity of supply.


What is at Stake: Why Food Security Matters to the Urban Poor

Since most of the urban poor do not produce food, they cannot cope with food price volatility and supply in the same way as rural populations.  Unless they can raise their incomes, during times of supply shortages or higher prices they find themselves increasingly vulnerable to the prospect of malnutrition.   UN Habitat notes: during periods of shortages “poor urban families often gave to use up to 70% of this income to purchase any food that is available, forcing them to reduce spending on education, child care  [and other non-discretionary items.]  In the most deeply affected countries families eat fewer meals, sometimes not eating for whole days and children stop going to school as parents save on fees to pay for food.”  To make ends meet, during times of crisis desperate urban poor families are sometimes forced to sell of productive assets, further impoverishing themselves. (State of the World Cities 2011-2012).

The consequences of malnutrition in children are dire.  The most common manifestation is stunting.  While conditions vary across countries, a 2012 study of two Nairobi slums, supported by the Wellcome Trust and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, highlight the issues. The research confirmed that  food poverty is a strong determinant of child growth.  In the two slums, 60% of children aged 15 months or older exhibited symptoms of stunting.  Under five mortality in Nairobi’s slums is 151 per thousand births compared to 62 in Nairobi as a whole and 113 in rural Kenya.   (Child Growth in Deprived Urban Settings by Jean Cristophe Fotso et al.).  For those who survive, stunting and undernourishment impact a child’s life forever, limiting educational attainment and future employment possibilities and consigning the family to increased health care costs.

Food insecurity also impacts grown children and adults. Poor diets of urban slum dwellers contribute to a high incidence of non-communicable diseases such as cardio-vascular disease, cancer, diabetes and chronic respiratory diseases.  A recent (2015) study of urban slum dwellers in Nairobi by Global Health Action found that an unhealthy diet was the highest of four identified causes of non-communicable disease (the others being insufficient physical activity, harmful use of alcohol and tobacco use).  An unhealthy diet consisted of insufficient consumption of fruits and vegetables and high consumption of sugars.  Global Health


What is to be Done?

The task of feeding the world’s cities adequately constitutes an increasingly pressing challenge, requiring the coordinated interaction of food producers, transporters, market operators and a myriad of retail sellers. […] Not least, it involves a shared understanding among city officials and national and international development agencies of the common problems and the potential solutions faced when seeking to feed cities on a sustainable basis. Jacques Diouf, FAO Director-General. The State of Food and Agriculture 1998, FAO

Neither national authorities nor the international donor community give food security for the urban poor the priority it merits.  Given the projected increase in the urban poor population in developing countries over the coming decades, if the SDG targets are to be met, urban food security must become an important element of national food security strategies throughout the world.  UN Habitat notes: “ to date, no adequate systematic effort has been made to alleviate hunger in poor urban areas.  The focus tends to remain on rural areas, where prevailing responses are not relevant in urban settings, since supply related malnutrition in cities is largely a consequence of household dependence on food prices and cash income. [Therefore] unique policy responses are required.”  Reducing poverty and inequity over the long term offers the most promising prospects for ending urban hunger. In the shorter term, there are a number of policies that developing countries can take to address the problem of urban food insecurity.  These include:

  • include an urban dimension in national food security planning
  • focus on increasing the supply of nutritious foods from local producers in both rural and peri-urban areas by sending the right market signals to rural farmers
  • improve distribution networks from farm to urban market
  • reduce post-harvest food losses from inappropriate food handling and packaging
  • reduce transportation costs by reducing road checks and (often illegal) taxation (IFPRI has estimated food losses can be as high as 35% for perishable food products while transportation  costs can reach as high as 90% of the overall food marketing margin
  • improve the condition and management of old urban wholesale markets, including modern cold storage facilities
  • invest in improving urban public retail markets which are often congested, unhealthy and unsecure
  • support urban and peri-urban agriculture through favorable legal and regulatory frameworks

(Olivio Argenti in Achieving Urban Food and Nutrition Security in the Developing World), 2000

  • improve nutrition counseling at urban health centers and introduce nutritional information in schools
  • in times of price shocks or supply shortages, provide for targeted subsidies for particular commodities or through types of “ration shops.” (UN Habitat). Means testing can be easier in urban areas where the better off receive wages or salaries
  • improve access to emergency food assistance and nutrition interventions for the urban poor


Role of the Global Community

While improving urban food security in developing countries is primarily the responsibility national governments, the international community can play a facilitating role.  International donors should  ensure they include an “urban optic” in developing food security strategies.  Multi-lateral institutions should ensure infrastructure development projects consider the bottlenecks to improved urban food security.  UN organizations and other international organizations (e.g. IFPRI) can provide technical assistance and research to national governments on the causes of urban food insecurity and propose remedial measures.  Relief organizations can assure urban at risk populations are not overlooked in times of crisis.  Government trade policies should refrain from imposing export bans, import subsidies and other restrictions in times of poor crop yields.  Bio-food policies should also be reexamined.