Food systems, with their three main elements – the food supply chain, consumer behavior, and the food environment – determine diets and nutrition outcomes (HLPE, 2017). More and more evidence highlights the importance of women and gender equity in the development of sustainable and nutrition-sensitive food systems; tracking gender inequities is essential for solutions to emerge. To truly understand the role of gender and inequities in the food system, nutrition, and health in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), one has to consider gender in the context of all three elements of the food system.
In the literature on gender and agriculture, quite a bit of research has looked at gender and the food supply chain; however, much of it focuses at the farm level, particularly smallholder production. Many studies have identified gender inequalities in access to and control over agricultural resources, like land, livestock, agricultural equipment, inputs, and financial services. There is also an ever-growing literature about gender and women’s participation in food value chains. This includes things like women’s roles, employment, women as managers and owners, and salary gaps.
Within the literature about consumer behavior, many articles focus on women: women as mothers, as caregivers, and as providers of food and nutrition for the family. This literature focuses on the linkages between women’s nutrition, their knowledge of food and nutrition, and their agency and/or autonomy in making decisions, especially decisions about providing food and nutrition for their children. Many of the studies in LMICs focus on rural consumers or producers as consumers, focusing on families that both produce and purchase food.
Yet what about the food environment? It is, one could say, the place where buyers and sellers of food interact; where food is sold or made available for consumers and where consumers find the food they will consume. Turner et al. (2017) provide a framework for the food environment in which they describe two domains, the external and the personal food environments. However, gender research in this area is scarce, more often focusing on either producers or consumers and not the spaces where food is exchanged or how producers and consumers interact, especially in LMIC contexts.
What does this mean for gender considerations? To find out what research has been conducted on this part of the system, we undertook a scoping review on gender and the food environment. Perhaps the most interesting finding of our study is that there are, in fact, relatively few studies relating to gender dynamics in the food environment. In general, studies relating to the personal food environment tend to focus on women, with few focusing on gender relations between men and women. With regards to the external food environment, there seems to be a disconnect between the conceptual framework and the studies that have been conducted, especially as related to gender. While the conceptual framework is oriented towards consumers and their diets and nutrition outcomes (even in terms of the external food environment), much of the previous literature related to gender and production of food is oriented toward producers and their wellbeing rather than how the food they produce will benefit consumers. As we note in our report:
Because the food system framework is oriented towards improved diets and nutrition of consumers, the emphasis in the food environment is also on consumers and the external elements that impact the food they can find in the food environment; whether food is available, the price of food, marketing and regulations, and vendor and product properties. On the other hand, most of the literature identified that relates to the food supply chain and the external food environment is more oriented towards producers and/or other value chain actors; focusing on things like production and processing practices, prices they receive and profitability, how they are affected by marketing and regulations (rather than on how these things impact the food product they provide). As such few of the articles deal with the external food environment dimensions directly.
The majority of articles we found focus on women without considering the role of men or gender norms. They identified how issues like women’s time use and mobility impact accessibility and affordability; convenience is an important consideration for time constrained women. Across various contexts, women are working outside the home. However, women still tend to be responsible for household and domestic chores like cooking, cleaning, and child (and elder) care activities. This creates long workdays which have impacts on women’s nutrition, as well as their families’, as demand increases for convenient and inexpensive foods, which are often highly processed and nutrient-poor. One study by de Morais Sato et al. (2014) found that about 20 percent of women in Santos, Brazil, do not have time to prepare food for their families; thus they rely on convenient and fast foods, while in another study in Iran, women reported skipping lunch so they could continue working for an income. In addition to this pressure, gender norms around eating practices within families relate to the desirability dimension and also impact consumption behavior and food allocation within households. A gap in the research is around men’s roles (e.g. as fathers and husbands) and how men influence diet and nutrition outcomes through each dimension of the personal food environment.
Overall, this study reveals knowledge gaps about how gender influences and is influenced by the different dimensions of the food environment. There are also opportunities to expand gender and food system research to include broader consumer base beyond agricultural producers to urban, peri-urban, and non-agricultural rural consumers. It will also be important to focus on gender dynamics and inequalities on the consumer behavior side of the food system, specifically to move beyond a focus on women to consider how men’s roles; interactions between men and women; relationships between women and other women, such as between wife and mother-in-law; and gender norms influence (and are influenced by) the different dimensions of the food environment.
To achieve more equitable food systems, gender inequities must be traced and be well understood. With this gap in research exposed, we can now move to identify sources of these inequities within gendered beliefs and norms, in order to confront lack of awareness and develop effective solutions.
Jennifer Twyman is a senior gender consultant for the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT, and lead author of the IFPRI discussion paper "Gender equity considerations in food environments of low- and middle-income countries." Elise Talsma is Assistant Professor in the Division of Human Nutrition and Health at Wageningen University & Research (WUR) and a coauthor of the paper. Janet Hodur, Senior Communications Specialist at A4NH, contributed to the writing of this blog.
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