Building a Movement to Recognize Food Security as a Human Right in the United States

© The Author(s) 2015
Kathryn R. Libal and Scott HardingHuman Rights-Based Community Practice in the United StatesSpringerBriefs in Rights-Based Approaches to Social Work10.1007/978-3-319-08210-3_4

4. Building a Movement to Recognize Food Security as a Human Right in the United States

Kathryn R. Libal  and Scott Harding 

School of Social Work, University of Connecticut, West Hartford, CT, USA



Kathryn R. Libal (Corresponding author)


Scott Harding

My husband thought about going to college, but it seemed like a nowhere situation in today’s economy. So many of our friends are coming out of college and go right into the food stamp line because they can’t get jobs. So my husband, a 4.0 student, decides against college and ends up a dishwasher. And we end up on food stamps. We’re not “in the system” because we don’t want to pay for our food or don’t want to work. But it’s a numbers game of being able to pay our bills and feed ourselves.

(International Human Rights Clinic, 2013, p. 7)


In the past three decades, little progress has been made in reducing poverty in the United States, while various forms of inequality have increased. In fact, both have worsened since the onset of the “Great Recession” in 2007. A notable measure of increased economic hardship has been the growing use of food aid, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). Requests for private food assistance from religious groups and community food bank programs have also risen. Indeed, the ranks of the food insecure and those drawing upon federal aid almost tripled in the past 15 years. In 2001, nearly 17 million individuals received assistance under the federal Food Stamp Program (renamed Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in 2008). By 2009, approximately 32 million people used Food Stamps (Food Research and Action Center, n.d.). Beneficiaries of SNAP, the largest government food assistance program, receive on average $1.40 per meal per day, or approximately $4–5 per day. As noted below, such minimal assistance does not meet standards for the right to food, particularly in areas of the country where food costs are high.

In May 2013, the International Human Rights Clinic at New York University Law School drew attention to food insecurity and hunger as a pervasive human rights violation. The report on fulfilling the right to food in the United States, the first of its kind, asserts:

The United States is facing a food security crisis: One in six Americans lives in a household that cannot afford adequate food. Of these 50 million individuals, nearly 17 million are children. Food insecurity has skyrocketed since the economic downturn, with an additional 14 million people classified as food insecure in 2011 than in 2007. (2013, p. 3)

Food insecurity exists when households report three or more food-specific negative conditions: they worry about running out of food due to lack of resources; the food supply runs out and there is no money to buy more; they are unable to afford food for balanced meals; adults felt they ate less food than they should; or adults reduced the size of their meal or skipped meals for three or more months (US Department of Agriculture as reported in Hoefer and Curry (2012)). Reporting on the “new face of hunger” illustrates the reality of food insecurity and the difficult choices that Americans make daily. Testimony included in the International Human Rights Clinic report (2013) points to both resourcefulness and struggle faced by those who are food insecure. One young woman stated, “We’ve learned to be savvy with our food stamps. We use our food stamps on healthy food rather than buying cheaper, instant things or junk food. And plan ahead. Still, there are times when all we have left to eat is ramen. It’s a little depressing, but at least we have ramen” (IHRC, 2013, p. 7).

The causes of food insecurity in the United States, one of the wealthiest countries in the world, are complex. Some communities are officially classified as “food deserts,” because of the lack of access to locations to purchase adequate, quality food. In neighborhoods where grocery stores and other food outlets exist, prices may be so high that adequate food is not attainable, especially for millions of low-income families (Kaiser, 2013). And, throughout the United States, food assistance programs such as SNAP are unevenly administered, ridden with delays and challenges related to establishing and maintaining eligibility, while private food banks may not be accessible to the food insecure. Using a human rights lens puts the responsibility for action to promote food security squarely on the government. Without grassroots mobilization, however, the charitable and emergency-based response to address food insecurity and hunger will continue to fail millions of vulnerable individuals and groups.

US food assistance programs were created in the 1930s–1960s, when public support for such entitlements was considerable. However, growing political pressure now seeks to reduce spending and change eligibility standards to limit participation in federal food security programs (Hoefer & Curry, 2012). This retrogressive approach would be regarded as a human rights violation under international law, but in current political debates such goals are often portrayed as demonstrating “fiscal responsibility.” Recent Congressional legislation has emphasized “out of control” spending on welfare, specifically the need to enact “Food Stamp Reform.” Efforts to limit access to food assistance as part of a campaign to “downsize big government” have included state legislation calling for mandatory drug testing and work requirements of food assistance recipients. Since 1996, benefits have been denied to formerly convicted felons, under the guise of promoting personal responsibility. Public discourse on these issues has stressed the dangers of dependency on “welfare” and the unfairness of redistributing resources through government-funded food entitlements. This represents the antithesis of a human rights-based approach to adequate food for all on a basis of universality and equality (Davis & Dugger, 2012; IHCR, 2013).

What would a human rights-based approach to food justice mobilization and advocacy look like? How would human rights principles for practice differ from current approaches to food security in the United States? After summarizing international standards regarding the right to food and the parameters of US food policy, we describe examples of community-based practice to ensure a right to food in the United States.

Defining the Human Right to Adequate Food

The right to adequate food was first outlined in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. It highlights the interdependence of social and economic rights, stating “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food …” (italics added). Additional protections were to be accorded to mothers and children. Securing food was thus embedded in the right to an adequate standard of living, and linked to housing, medical care, and the right to social protection in the event one could not work. The right to adequate food was given further legal substance in international law in its elaboration in the International Covenant on the Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) passed by the UN General Assembly in 1966 (see Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (1966)). The UN Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, which is charged with monitoring government compliance with international human rights standards, has established standards on the right to food. These are predicated on the principles of accessibility, availability, adequacy, and acceptability as core dimensions of the right to food (UN CESCR, 1999).

Food accessibility has both physical and economic dimensions. Individuals must be able to afford food (economic accessibility) for an adequate diet without compromising other basic needs such as housing, health care, or education. Food must be physically accessible to all people at all times, including those who may be physically disabled, the elderly, chronically ill, children, and others who are vulnerable within society. Access to food must also be guaranteed for those without direct access to food outlets (see Excerpt from the Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights General Comment on the Right to Adequate Food (Art. 11) (1999)).

In addition, food must be available to purchase in stores or people must be able to produce their own food (UN CESCR, 1999, paragraph 12). The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (2010) underscores the link between poverty and violations of the right to food: “Often people living in poverty cannot fully enjoy the right to food because they cannot afford to buy adequate food nor the means to grow it themselves. However, the fact that they do not have the means to obtain food is also a result of persistent patterns of discrimination in access to education and information, political and social participation and access to justice” (p. 10).

International law underscores that adequacy of food cannot be interpreted narrowly, in terms of a “minimum package of calories, proteins and other specific nutrients” (UN CESCR, 1999, paragraph 6). Instead, adequacy should be determined “by prevailing social, economic, cultural, climatic, ecological and other conditions” (1999, paragraph 7). The Committee also stresses that availability of food must be “in a quantity and quality sufficient to satisfy the dietary needs of individuals, free from adverse substances, and acceptable within a given culture” (Emphasis added; UN CESCR, 1999, paragraph 8). Thus, adequacy must take into account each individual’s dietary needs based on age, living conditions, health conditions, occupation, and sex/gender.

The cultural acceptability component of the right to food highlights the relational aspect of food. For a person to feel socially included within a given community or society, she or he should be able to access foods that are both culturally acceptable and desirable, as well as be able to gain such food through means that do not undermine one’s dignity. The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food underscores this principle, defining the right to include “sufficient food corresponding to the cultural traditions of the people to which the consumer belongs, and which ensure a physical and mental, individual and collective, fulfilling and dignified life free of fear” (UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, n.d.). So, for example, having to seek food at a local soup kitchen or to scavenge food from trash dumpsters to meet one’s nutritional needs undermines an individual’s send of social inclusion and dignity, thus violating not only the right to food, but also to participate within family and community life.

Critical to the notion of the right to food is that government is obligated to create an “enabling environment” in which individuals can secure food. The right to food puts the responsibility on governments to foster people’s ability to “use their full potential to produce or procure adequate food for themselves and their families. To purchase food, a person needs adequate income: the right to food requires States to ensure that wage policies or social safety nets enable citizens to realize their right to adequate food” (emphasis added, Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier de Shutter, retrieved from ​www.​srfood.​org/​index.​php/​en/​right-to-food). Ideally, all citizens and residents within a country would be able to purchase food with their own income and resources. But if not, governments are obliged to assure that social policies exist to address the rights of those who cannot work or whose income is not sufficient to secure adequate food.

In a 2012 investigation in Canada, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food found that realizing the right to food would require a food strategy grounded in a holistic approach which addressed developing rural economies, encouraged production and consumption of local foods, and the adoption of policies to improve food security and promote health (UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, 2012). An integrated approach would need to address community development and policy making at a national and state or provincial level that integrated issues of “food, agriculture, health, transportation, economy and social protection” (2012, paragraphs 13–14). Of note, the Special Rapporteur stressed that while food policies which are more holistic are emerging at municipal levels, the benefits of such policies are unevenly experienced and must be combined with state/provincial and federal efforts to secure the right to adequate food for all. Thus, while specific locales may be mobilizing for food justice, a “national right to food strategy” must be developed to “effectively combat hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition” (2012, paragraph 15). While the recommendations of the Special Rapporteur were made to Canada, food systems and social policies, as well as the legal context about recognizing the right to food, are similar to the United States. Thus, his findings can also legitimately be applied to the US context.

Securing the right to adequate food is inextricably entwined with other human rights, such as the right to an adequate standard of living, to social protection, or to the right to housing. As the UN Committee on Social, Economic, and Cultural Rights finds, core principles such as governmental accountability (responsibility), transparency (openness), and local or community participation in setting policies, standards, and practices are crucial to securing the right to adequate food (UN CESCR, 1999, paragraph 23).

Until recently, the United States was one of the few countries to refuse to officially recognize a human right to food, illustrating the legacy of “American exceptionalism” with regard to international human rights standards and practices (Hertel & Libal, 2011). President Jimmy Carter signed the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) in 1977, signaling his intent that the United States would recognize economic and social rights as human rights. Yet, the US Senate has failed to bring the treaty to the floor of the Senate for ratification for more than 35 years.

Moreover, while the right to food was a rallying cry for advocates regarding US foreign policy in the 1970s, the government has distanced itself from recognizing the right to food that entail governmental obligations for provision in almost all official capacities. As Davis and Dugger (2012) note, “In international forums, the United States historically rejected the concept of a right to food and for years objected to any international document formally recognizing the right” (p. 204). In 2011, President Obama recognized a UN Human Rights Council resolution on the right to food. However, his administration illustrated its limited conception of this right by asserting that “everyone has a right to an adequate standard of living, including food” as defined by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but that it does not regard “the right to food as an enforceable

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