How does food security happen? Alternative title: deconstructing a bowl of porridge

The first few times I read the definition of food security, even though I could recite it and maybe even come up with convincing examples, I didn’t really understand how food security happens. Reading related articles and visiting farms has been helpful, but what has truly made the difference is thinking about how and why, as an individual, I am food secure. I like to think about this as often as I can. That’s what I’ll do in this post. How does food security happen in my life explained with a bowl of porridge. Hopefully it’ll help you reflect upon how food secure you are and to what extent. It’s really interesting stuff we’ll continue to explore in upcoming weeks. But for now, how does food security happen?

Cuadros vacios

How does food security happen? Let’s fill out these empty blocks, shall we?

What is food security?

The most widely-cited definition is this one: “Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food which meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” (FAO, 2002)

Even though that definition is non-intimidating, I prefer the next one because it’s more specific. It gives me a set of criteria which I can later use to assess situations (FAO, 2008):

Food security exists when the following four conditions are met: a) food is available (i.e. crop growth and harvest); b) food is accessible (i.e. exchange at market); c) food is utilised (i.e. correct preparation and assimilation by the body); and, d) the previous three conditions are stable over time.

Deconstruction of oatmeal

So after reading those definitions my typical reaction used to be: “Okay. Those four criteria have to be met. But how does that actually happen?” Feeling pretty food secure as I ate my breakfast, I asked: How did this bowl of porridge come to be? That’s where the idea for this post came from. Let’s focus on the oats to find an answer.

It all starts with a question, where do the oats in my porridge come from?

Assumptions (things we’ll imagine for the sake of this post):

  • There is only one producer of oats.
  • The farmers who grow the oats also process and sell them directly to the market without any middleman.
  • All trading occurs at a centralised market, that is, consumers don’t visit the farm directly – I don’t fly to Ireland to pick up my oats.

Stage 1: Producing food

Food system 1

Stage 1: Food production – it refers to agriculture and includes crops, forests, livestock and fisheries (Betts et al., 2009).

Somewhere oats have to be grown from soil, water and sunlight – because oat is a cereal that grows above ground. Obvious, right? Is it? Flashback to the results of that survey by the British Nutrition Foundation where a third of the primary school participants thought cheese came from plants and a tenth of the secondary school participants thought tomatoes were grown underground.

Stage 2: Processing food

Food system 2

Stage 2: Food processing and packaging – after harvesting, crops or animal products usually require some form of processing before consumption (Ericksen, 2008).

Although you probably know, it doesn’t hurt to repeat this: oats, as commonly bought in supermarkets, are not the result of just shaking the plant and collecting what comes off. The part of the oat plant we eat in our porridge is a seed within a harder outer layer called ‘hull’, which is attached to the stalks. The process of threshing and hulling is well explained here (with pictures).

After that, depending on how you prefer them, there is still more processing. In our example, groats (oats after the hull is removed) are steamed and flattened. You can see the differences here (yes, with pictures).

Stage 3: Distributing food

Food system 3

Stage 3: Food distribution – it aims to connect producers and consumers but it also strives to allocate food appropriately (MIT, 2014).

Great. So food is ready to eat, sort of. It’s been grown and processed. But there are still steps left before I can enjoy a delicious warm bowl of porridge.

Oats need to make it to a market. What does this entail? Close your eyes and imagine thousands of packages of oats being put into boxes. Multiply these boxes and visualize them going into a container straight to a retailer or market. There is fuel involved to get them to Exeter (where I’m living right now), there is of packaging involved to make sure the oats arrive as the producers in Ireland intended them to and there is unloading and unpacking until an employee finally stocks shelves.

On one sunny, or not so sunny (because England), morning I get up and decide to go grocery shopping. For me to buy oats, I have to have resources. That is a given in this example but lack of resources is a serious cause of food insecurity for millions of people around the world. Particularly because the less income a family earns, the fraction of their earnings spent on food is higher, making them very sensitive to changes in food prices.

Let’s continue for now. Imagine I walk to the supermarket, reach for the oats and buy them. We’re almost there.

Stage 4: Consuming food

Food system 4

Stage 4: Food consumption – adequate use of food, ingestion and nutrient assimilation. A big fear of mine is having a lot of quinoa to eat, but no food or source of heat to cook it!

Every morning as soon as I get up, I take these four ingredients and put them inside a slow cooker so that my porridge is done by the time I’m ready. This seemingly trivial process involves access to energy to power the slow cooker and knowledge to understand how to use these foods to prepare a bowl of creamy oatmeal.

Finally, I use a spoon to scoop this deliciousness into my mouth. My body has no problem digesting the ingredients and absorbing its nutrients. Never to be taken for granted! Serious medical conditions that impede nutrient absorption by the body can cause severe food insecurity even if everything else I just mentioned is met!

I consider myself to be food secure because I think all the circumstances just described will continue to happen regularly during my lifetime. Truth is, nobody is exempt from becoming food insecure! My health is not guaranteed, or is my access to resources – global food production is under pressure.

 Food systems and food security


Food security is an outcome of food systems (FAO, 2002).

The four stages just explained form what is called a food system. As you hopefully understood, food security is an outcome (result or product) of food systems. If you were paying attention, you probably realised that there are many things that interact with each stage of the food system: environmental, social, political and economic drivers affect and are affected by food systems. In upcoming weeks we’ll explore how our changing environment influences food systems and consequently, food security. Great fun!


Betts, R. a., Falloon, P. D., Gornall, J., Kaye, N., Wiltshire, A., & Wheeler, T. R. (2009). Climate change and food security. doi:10.1098/rstb.2005.1745

Ericksen, P. J. (2008). Conceptualizing food systems for global environmental change research. Global Environmental Change, 18(1), 234–245. doi:10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2007.09.002

FAO. (2002). Chapter 2. Food security: concepts and measurement. Retrieved April 13, 2015, from

MIT. (2014). Inadequate Food Distribution Systems | Mission 2014: Feeding the World. Retrieved April 11, 2015, from



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