Food insecurity(ies) and access to quality food: definitions and context

To act against food insecurity by promoting access to quality food for everyone

September 2020

Le Labo de l’économie sociale et solidaire (Labo ESS)

The demand for food aid is exploding at the same time as the unemployment rate increases and school canteens no longer serve children from low-income families. Fortunately, a wave of national solidarity has spread throughout France. Self-help groups have been set up in the regions among the inhabitants, with associations, local authorities, shopkeepers and local producers. At the same time, the demand for quality food has never been so high, with an exponential growth in the purchase of organic products and/or local products. How can these two France converge? Why should quality be reserved for those who can afford it, to the detriment of those who can’t? How can we proceed to reconcile what seems impossible: access to quality food with low incomes? What reforms, what actions should be undertaken to enable the exercise of a real right to a standard of living sufficient to ensure food in dignity? What type of systemic organisations should be encouraged in the territories in order to provide concerted, complementary, cooperative and effective responses between all the actors concerned? And how can we take part in this major issue that concerns us all: changing our eating habits to improve our impact on the environment and our health? This study aims to help explore certain avenues to shed light on these questions by drawing on meetings in the field, interviews and the reading of a wealth of literature, which we have not yet finished reading.

Food insecurity(ies): what are we talking about?

What is food insecurity?

The notion of food insecurity emerged in France at the end of the 1980s in line with the work of sociologist Serge Paugam and a definition of precariousness proposed by the French Economic and Social Council. Much more than food insecurity, which is more popular in other countries, this notion places access to food at the heart of a social issue, thus going beyond the quantitative and nutritional prism to make a deeper link between food and exclusion 1. Because its definition often varies, food insecurity remains a situation that is difficult to translate into figures. For example, 25% of the respondents to the Poverty Barometer 2019 carried out by IPSOS for Secours Populaire Français stated that they have difficulty in obtaining a healthy diet that allows them to eat 3 meals a day 2. This action-research proposes a broad definition of poverty, including the issues of quality, sustainability and dignity.

Food insecurity, a dimension of precariousness as a global situation

Precariousness is a global situation that can be defined, following the Economic, Social and Environmental Council (EESC), as « the absence of one or more of the securities, in particular that of employment, enabling individuals and families to fulfil their professional, family and social obligations and to enjoy their fundamental rights » 3.

As this definition indicates, it results from the conjunction of several insecurities of which food insecurity is only one of the possible facets: job insecurity, fuel insecurity, housing insecurity, etc.

These different dimensions of precariousness are interrelated and should not be considered in isolation. Two valuable lessons can be drawn from this observation:

From food insecurity to food insecurity: different profiles, different situations, different needs

It is common in speeches to reduce this notion to certain simplified, even stereotypical visions. Rather, food insecurity is the result of a combination of several specific social parameters, for example: family situation, professional situation, age, housing, health, regulatory situation, geographical location and mobility. This diversity of situations corresponds to a plurality of needs and forms of adaptation to food insecurity. There is therefore no single answer.

Quality food: going beyond reductionist visions

Today, food quality has become a major social issue. The importance of quality in French people’s relationship with food can be explained by the combination of several variables:

At the centre of these concerns, the industrialisation of food is particularly called into question. The food chain is increasingly complex and opaque for consumers, who have less and less control over what they eat 4. However, although the notion of quality food is today omnipresent and also unifying, its definition remains no less vague. It is often associated with multiple concepts: « organic », « zero-phyto », « local », « sugar-free », « fat-free », etc. (12). It is therefore difficult to establish a priori a definition of quality food that is valid for everyone and in all contexts. However, it is possible to identify its main components and then to propose a demanding definition that serves as a benchmark and ideal to be achieved: Quality food: food that is healthy for the body and for the environment, tastes good, is composed of products whose origin is known, is sold at a fair and just price for farmers, respects working conditions, is accessible to consumers and conveys a social bond.

Access to quality food: the wallet but not that of the consumer.

The notion of access to food can be understood through four dimensions:

Economic accessibility

It results both from the price offered and the purchasing power of the people (income, aid, etc.). It is the primary factor in inequalities in access to quality food.

Practical accessibility

It concerns both the physical condition of people (age, disability for example), their living environment and mobility, their access to adequate equipment (access to a kitchen, tools) and their available time.

Social and cultural accessibility

It refers to food as a social and cultural practice linked to the identity of the individual and his or her relationship with others. It therefore refers to the ability to have access to food in accordance with one’s values, traditions and practices.

Citizen accessibility

It refers to the need to have access to a good knowledge of the food system, the ability to organise collectively and participate in any citizen initiative related to food (associative and/or political commitment, responsible consumption, transfer of food-related knowledge, etc.).

It appears that people in a situation of food insecurity are precisely those who are hindered in several or even all of these dimensions:

Economic accessibility

Convenient accessibility

Social and cultural accessibility

Citizen accessibility

  • 1 PATUREL, D. (2018). Insécurité alimentaire et/ou précarité alimentaire, démocratie alimentaire… de quoi parle-t-on ? Dans « La lutte contre la précarité alimentaire ». Journal RESOLIS #1

  • 2 Secours Populaire Français & IPSOS. (2019). Résultats du 13e Baromètre de la pauvreté. Edition 2019. URL :

  • 3 CESE. (1987). Grande pauvreté et précarité économique et sociale. Rapport présenté au nom du Conseil économique et social par M. Joseph Wresinski.

  • 4 Fondation Daniel et Nina Carasso & IPSOS. (2016). « Alimentation durable : les Français de plus en plus attentifs à ce qu’ils mangent ».


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