4.3.3. Overview of Food Access and the Value Chain Approach


Food access is defined by USAID as when “[i]ndividuals have adequate incomes or other resources to purchase or barter to obtain levels of appropriate foods needed to maintain consumption of an adequate diet/nutrition level.”[1] Access requires that individuals have enough resources to obtain or produce food. Households may lack adequate amounts to eat in spite of food being available. In what is known as a "food security paradox", the World Bank observes that "it is common to have 20 to 30 percent of a country's population consuming less than 80 percent of caloric requirements even though national-level food availability is at or greater than 100 percent".[2] This is the case in India, where despite large-scale increases in food availability, 20 to 30 percent of the population still consumes inadequate amounts of calories.[3]

Recent trends are exacerbating food access challenges. The World Bank estimates that increases in food prices from June 2010 to January 2011 put 44 million people into poverty.[4] Vulnerable populations (e.g. the very poor, disadvantaged women, at-risk youth) are particularly prone to facing challenges in food access. More information is available on addressing food security among vulnerable populations.

Identifying Food Access Challenges

Food access is assessed at the household level and typically looks at food source, income sources and coping strategies. There are multiple tools and resources that identify problems with food access. These include the household food insecurity access scale, the household dietary diversity scale, and months of adequate household food provisioning.

Critical Issues to Consider in Addressing Food Access with a Value Chain Approach

The issues of targeting, subsidies, income and consumption smoothing, gender, lowering food prices, and commercializing food crops are important to consider when working to improve food access:

  • Targeting: Households struggling to access food face a range of challenges that make them less likely to self-select into value chain programming, typically including limited assets and high risk aversion. While reducing food prices does not require working directly with food insecure households, many other strategies for improving food access require a more intensive effort directed at these households. Programs need to consider whether to target such households directly with their programming, and if so, how to identify and engage these households.
  • Subsidies: The households with the poorest access to food typically require significant investments and a longer time frame to address the root constraints that they face. Such constraints often include both tangible issues (e.g. lack of productive assets) and intangible issue (e.g. poor self-esteem). Projects will need to consider the constraints faced by the food insecure populations they aim to benefit, and what corresponding strategies are required. Many of the approaches used in applying the value chain approach to vulnerable populations are relevant here. 
  • Income and consumption smoothing: The distribution of income throughout the year – rather than aggregate earnings alone – is critical to food security. "Lumpy" income that is earned irregularly and infrequently and inadequate access to savings services create significant challenges for maintaining stable household food consumption for use later in the year. Understanding the patterns of income flows and money management options are important for designing effective responses that improve food access. 
  • Gender: Increasing the incomes of women has a greater impact on food security than raising male incomes. Evidence shows that when women have greater control over household economic resources they spend more money on food, education, healthcare and child nutrition.[5]  However, increasing opportunities for women to earn income can have negative impacts when it reduces women’s available time to spend on activities that contribute to effective food utilization, such as child care and food preparation. These dynamics play an important role in determining what intervention strategies will be most effective.
  • Lowering food prices: A relatively small proportion of all farmers supply the majority of traded surplus food in many markets; in some countries in East Africa only the largest few percent of farmers provide up to 50 percent of the total surplus for crops such as maize while as many as half of farmers are net purchasers.[6] Reducing food costs thus has significant benefits for net food purchasers, who include urban dwellers and many smallholder farmers. Food prices have a strong influence on real incomes for poor consumers because a large share of their incomes (often 60 - 80%) is spent on food.[7] Value chain programs should generally seek to lower food prices when working with staple crops, and consider the context in assessing the comparative impacts on food access of lowering food prices and raising incomes.  
  • Commercializing staple foods: Encouraging farmers to begin selling staple foods that were formerly consumed within the household and linking them to distant markets may not always be positive. Linking farmers to better paying markets outside the local area may increase the sale price of the crop and thus reduce the purchasing power of local consumers that were formerly the only customers. Projects should therefore consider the impact of commercializing food crops on the purchasers of those crops.  
  • Consuming agricultural production: Projects have learned that farmers are not always able to afford to consume the products that they produce without jeopardizing the commercial viability of the activity. Dairy producers, for instance, often need to sell a portion of their milk in order to afford their business-related expenses (e.g. fodder, medicine). If the milk that is produced is only sufficient to cover their costs, any household milk consumption will put their business in jeopardy. Encouraging food production to improve household consumption is therefore only likely to be sustainable if the household is earning an adequate economic return to support both sale and consumption.   

Applying the Value Chain Approach to Food Access

There are a number of strategies for applying the value chain approach to improve food access.


  1. USAID Policy Determination:  Definition of Food Security, 1992, 3.
  2. Diskin, Understanding Linkages among Food Availability, Access, Consumption, and Nutrition in Africa: Empirical Findings and Issues from the Literature, 1994, 9.
  3. del Ninno et al, Food Aid and Food Security in the Short and Long Run: Country Experience from Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, 2004, 87.
  4. The World Bank, Food Price Hike Drives 44 Million People into Poverty, February 15, 2011.
  5. FAO, the State of Food and Agriculture: Women in Agriculture, Closing the Gender Gap for development. Rome, 2011.
  6.  Jayne et al, Patterns and Trends in Food Staples Markets in Eastern and Southern Africa:  Toward the Identification of Priority Investments and Strategies for Developing Markets and Promoting Smallholder Productivity Growth, 2010.
  7. Diskin, Understanding Linkages among Food Availability, Access, Consumption, and Nutrition in Africa: Empirical Findings and Issues from the Literature, 1994, 9.