A hand cupping a lettuce

Indian women hold the key to food wellbeing

6 November 2018
Alleviating hunger requires input from marginalised groups
Governments need to recognise the status of women in the family and society and give them a role in developing policies aimed at alleviating poverty, according to researchers at the University of Sydney Business School.

In a paper titled ‘Families and Food: exploring food wellbeing in poverty’, the researchers argue food security or ensuring adequate supplies of food isn’t enough to meet the needs of people living below the poverty line.

Associate Professor Ranjit Voola says that while food security relates to calorie intake, food wellbeing addresses food beyond nutrition, such as “psychological nourishment or a sense of comfort, love and community”. 

“Our research finds important links between families, food consumption and poverty,” said Dr Voola. “We also found that the everyday activities of choosing, buying and consuming food involve unequal power dynamics that influence family relations and are detrimental to women and girls and hinder poverty alleviation.”

Dr Voola worked on the project with Dr Archana Voola (University of NSW), Dr Jessica Wyllie (University of Newcastle), Dr Jamie Carlson (University of Newcastle) and Dr Srinivas Sridharan (Monash University). 

The researchers based their findings on interviews with 25 women, many of them widows, living in absolute poverty in southern India. More than 190 million Indians are estimated to experience hunger every day.

Dr Voola said that many of the women interviewed relied on interdependent networks to ensure food availability. In addition to working full-time in the fields, many of the women were also singularly responsible for food acquisition and preparation. 

Few women had an opportunity to learn about food or its preparation beyond the skills passed down to them by their mothers, to try new foods or new cooking methods or buy labour saving pre-prepared foods such as chilli powder. 

Men in most cases were reluctant to assist their wives and mothers. “I ask my son to help with collecting water and he says ‘do it yourself. I am not a girl to bring water’,” said one interviewee. 

The paper also talks of the role of food in maintaining kinship structures which can serve to protect vulnerable women. “We share meals with our friends and other members of the community,” said an interviewee. "When relatives and guests come to the house we feed them happily. It is an honour.” 

For many women, food wellbeing can involve the fulfilment of an emotional need. Dr Voola quotes one study participant as saying that “if the children are not there to eat with her, her hunger is not satiated”. 

“Policies addressing hunger emphasise meeting physiological needs, however, for a holistic response to hunger, both physiological (food security) and psycho-social needs (food wellbeing) have to be met,” said Dr Voola. 

“Policy makers need to intentionally create enabling environments, that recognise mothers’ status in families’ food decision-making process and allow for them to gain visibility as part of the political and/or economic elite.” 
“Policy makers need to facilitate contributions to the food policy-making processes from marginalised groups, such as poor women,” Dr Voola concluded. This is essential if we are to achieve the UN’s sustainable development goal of no hunger by 2030.