The sociology of food security

A farmer in Mauritania
Who eats what, how much, and why? (WFP/Jon Shadid)

Are there any taboos affecting eating habits in Mauritanian households? How do eating habits vary among different ethnic groups, and different family members? How could these customs affect food security throughout the year?

These are some of the questions food aid experts and sociologists will examine in a “food consumption habits” study to be launched in the coming weeks across Mauritania. It will go beyond customary assessments to get at details experts hope will significantly improve food security programmes, according to World Food Programme (WFP), which is leading the study.

“There are a lot of questions related to food security - particularly regarding people’s eating habits - for which we don’t yet have scientific data,” said Guy Gauvreau, WFP country director in Mauritania, adding that the study would help address that.

“This information will help us better define and understand micro- and macronutrient deficiencies and better plan not only the food basket but the best types of assistance for the population,” Gauvreau said. “It’s beyond food security to nutritional security… For a long time the aid community in general has underestimated the importance of understanding people’s food consumption habits.”

To do so, he said, the participation of people with intimate knowledge of the culture is indispensable; hence the collaboration with local sociologists. “A study like this requires people who know the local sociology - people who are culturally close to the subject.” 

Scarce arable land

Mauritania is a food-deficit country where agricultural production fluctuates markedly from year to year due to weather variations. Domestic cereals production covers only one-third of the national requirement in a normal year. The country is highly dependent on imports of coarse grains (millet and sorghum) from its neighbours, Senegal and Mali, as well as wheat purchased on the international market.

Source: FAO

The study, in collaboration with Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the sociology department at University of Nouakchott, is also part of efforts to assist the government in drawing up a food security strategy, WFP says. 

While periodic assessments look into household food expenses and dietary diversity - usually with a review of the previous week - the “habits” study will examine consumption at an individual level to have a better understanding of the dynamics among members of a family, said Cedric Charpentier, food security assessment officer in WFP’s West Africa regional office. It will also look more closely at eating habits, preferences and preparation methods to see the role of all these in food security.

WFP and its partners are finalizing the methodology; it is expected to include discussions with focus groups.

Similar food consumption habits studies have been done before in Latin America; this is the first one in Mauritania, according to WFP. The plan is for the methodology used in Mauritania to be adapted for use in other West African countries.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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