Food Safety vs. Food Security: On the hubris of food system terminology

Island_Pond_trip_(24_of_58)By Kristyn Achilich

This year, my research, under the direction of Linda Berlin, provided me with an opportunity to investigate the varying degrees of readiness that six communities across the Northeast exhibited in their preparedness to increase their access to fresh, whole, healthy food.  These communities span geographic and socioeconomic boundaries, from a very small rural community with a population of 1200, to an urban center.  During my research, I interviewed several individuals from each community and gathered information on how each person perceived their community’s support for an increased presence of fresh food in the local corner store, schools, and city policy. After four interviews with food leaders in one particular community, a city broken up into diverse socioeconomic neighborhoods, I stumbled upon a terminology divergence—here, food safety means something very different than what I was teaching in the lab for NFS 203: Food Microbiology, a course for the nutrition and dietetics undergraduate majors at UVM. 

While many other community food assessments incorporate a catalog of programming, policy and funding into their evaluation of fresh food for the community, none are based on assessing the stages of change a community must undergo to change its food environment.  The Community Readiness Model is based on the stages of change, but at the community level.  There are nine stages a community might travel through as it seeks to change its food environment: no awareness, resistance, vague awareness, pre-planning, preparation, initiation, stabilization, expansion, and high level of community ownership.  To discover where a community falls on this spectrum, six dimensions of the community are evaluated: community members’ knowledge of the issue, the community climate, the existing efforts, community members’ knowledge of the efforts, resources, and leadership.  In using the community readiness model, each of these six dimensions is scored on a scale from 1 to 9.  These six scores are then averaged to arrive at the readiness score for the community.  This score then allows researchers, non-profits, and policy makers to tailor strategies appropriate for a community so it can progress towards successful change.

This overall readiness score is immensely helpful in staging a set of communities the researcher or group is studying.  However, I found that the six individual dimension scores revealed important findings about how the communities were utilizing the existing programming and resources.  By this I mean, I found the scores for the dimensions on community knowledge about the issue, knowledge about the efforts, and climate in all six communities I interviewed to be lower than the existing efforts, leadership, and resources dimensions.  I came to classify these two groups of dimensions as the “Community Dimensions” and the “Infrastructure & Support Dimensions.”   This seemed to, in part, explain the divergence in terminology I mentioned above.  For instance, I was struck by how leaders can develop polices, media can be involved, nonprofits can create programs, but people “on the ground” may not be available, on some level, to capitalize on these opportunities because they are distracted by some very real issues.  Personal safety rose to the top as a main barrier to accessing the wealth of the existing programming in the urban settings.

Aseptic technique, spoilage and fermentation microbes, SNAP benefits, and community gardens aside, if you can’t safely leave your house to walk to the corner store, or catch the bus to the grocery store across town, the increased presence of fresh food, or the regulations in place to produce that food safely, is not likely to top your list of worries. In the case of the urban communities, obtaining food safely is a prerequisite to having food security.

Food security is a term that means more than the sum of its parts. There are 4 components to food security: (1) Food availability: Sufficient quantities of food available on a consistent basis; (2) Food access: Having sufficient resources to obtain appropriate foods for a nutritious diet; (3) Food use: Appropriate use based on knowledge of basic nutrition and care, as well as adequate water and sanitation; and (4) Stability of the other three components over time: Inadequate access to food on a periodic basis risks a deterioration of one’s nutritional status (for more information, see Food and Agriculture Organization: An Introduction to the Basic Concepts of Food Security). So, even if folks have economic means to obtain fresh food, and that fresh food is present in their gardens, stores, and schools, their food security remains in jeopardy if they can’t walk the streets to the food sources without a threat of violence.

This isn’t a problem for all of this one city or only this city. It exists in many geographic locations. For me it all comes back to context and thinking about influences on various parts of the system. Learning about the situation in one city reaffirmed for me that we can’t separate a person’s experience with food from the rest of their life. In a community where the focus is understandably on keeping family members safe amidst crime, violence, and rampant drug use, it is not surprising that accessibility to fresh food doesn’t always get top billing. Context, community culture, and systems thinking remain important when we consider the range of solutions to address food security.

Kristyn Achilich is a masters student in the UVM Food Systems Graduate Program.

Photo: Kristyn conducts a survey with a grocery shopper in Island Pond, VT. Photo by Joshua Brown, UVM.

Posted in: Economic, Health, Social.

3 Responses to Food Safety vs. Food Security: On the hubris of food system terminology

  1. @ Kristyn, My firm Atlanta Food & Farm LLC ( is involved with developing or planning several community food system initiatives here in Atlanta. I would like to discuss your observations about as they relate to our experiences of challenges and opportunities here. Could you please contact me ( Thanks.

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