Contents - Previous - Next

This is the old United Nations University website. Visit the new site at

Women's role in domestic food acquisition and food use in India: A case study of lowi-ncome urban households

R. S. Khare
Department of Anthropology, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia, USA

This paper will try to characterize a research issue that has been of direct interest to anthropologists as well as to food and nutrition policy analysts. In order to keep the discussion defined and manageable, it focuses on women's role in intrahousehold food management to raise issues critical to food and nutrition policies and their analysis. In general, as food policy analysts and nutritionists have now begun to realize (1, 2), the anthropological contribution concerns the questions how and why in food use and nutritional status. The paper explains what is assumed, cautions against oversimplification, and focuses on the practical implications of socio-cultural variability and complexity. The purpose of the contribution is to monitor interrelationships between what the economist would say are the input and output of a particular policy or programme.

Thus, the central issue to which anthropological analysis can contribute is interactions within what Pinstrup-Andersen has labelled the "black box":

No attempt is made to analyze the mechanisms by which the impact is transmitted; i.e., it is unknown what happened inside the "black box." The study merely compares a situation where the program (read output) is present to a situation where it is absent, either over time for the same population or group, or at a given point in time across population groups.... It is necessary to know not only by how much but also how the nutritional status is influenced by the various programs.... This requires understanding of the mechanism by which the nutrition status is affected.... The process components must be identified and their interaction understood. [1]

The following discussion will consider the black-box issue in terms of the social factors that constrain Indian women's time and energy for household food acquisition and allocation. We will distinguish some social criteria that these women bear in mind as they approach the food markets, including the government's fair price food distribution system. Women in India often stand at the centre of several issues critical to intrahousehold nutrition programme evaulation. This article will characterize the issue of intrahousehold food acquisition and food use in anthropological terms and refer to some policy sensitive issues on the basis of a study of the roles of low-caste, low-income women in an Indian city. While a detailed empirical study cannot be presented here, the following remarks on the data should be helpful.


The empirical basis for the following observations on Indian women comes mainly from field work done during 19791980 in Lucknow, a city in northern India, to complete a project on food management within Brahman and the Untouchable Chamar households. A special focus was developed on intrafamily food use and nutritional issues, enabling me to study the critical role of women in them. A total of 45 households (15 Brahmans and 30 Chamar) were studied for this purpose, keeping their socio-economic, educational, and nutritional status in mind.

These families had a maximum monthly income of Rs 500 (approximately US$50) and were most often employed within the city either in a government office, a private concern, or on a labour gang. However, the Brahman households had, on average, a higher education (B.A.) and income (Rs 450) and lived in better neighbourhoods. They also had fewer cases of severe malnutrition. The Chamars, on the other hand, had, on average, middle-school education and an income of Rs 200 per month. Their neighbourhoods were often classified as "slums." The average family size for the Brahman was 3.9, while it was 5.2 for the Chamar. Sociologically, the Brahman households displayed a greater social interdependence, but only among closely related families, while the Chamars' contacts were diverse but less intensive and effective. Thus, the important background factors for the discussion that follows are: income, caste status, household size, education, and social cohesiveness. The women's domestic role is shaped by them.


Since anthropologists and food policy analysts may readily agree that women's role in intra-household food acquisition and use is a critical one in most societies, that role offers a good context for examining how the nutritional intake and status of a family may be influenced by women and by food availability. In Lucknow the women play a sequence of crucial roles within the households, and they are influenced in turn by the government food distribution programmes and policies. But, as this actually happens, some important points emerge about women's perspectives on domestic food and nutrition.

Indian women rarely see food only as a commodity in isolation from the larger domestic social circumstances. They most often see it in the form of a meal, especially according to the needs or requirements of a particular family. This integrated view of food also underscores the cultural point that Indian women routinely concern themselves with matters of cooking, eating, and feeding. Most engage in food processing, meal planning, cooking, and daily feeding. If they are of low caste and poor, they also glean, process, and store the cooking fuel. But whether of high or low caste, they measure the available food against a set of qualitative and quantitative domestic criteria and match what is available against routine as well as special needs. As they do all this, they also try to balance need against desire and shortages against some form of satisfaction. Obviously, such a balancing feat is most tenuous in poor families.

But the Indian woman not only distributes cooked food, she also controls food waste, whether cooked or uncooked. She stores or disposes of the left-overs, with direct impact on childfeeding at different times of the day. This also brings into the picture another role of the woman: She must care for the pregnant, the sick, and the elderly within the household; it is her customary duty as well as right. To be sensitive and caring to all the members of the family and to keep their welfare before her own are the culturally expected modes of behaviour. Actually, they are so important to her that she defines herself in such terms, whether she is rich or poor and whether she is of high caste or not. As women are so involved with domestic food use, we need to know how this relates to programmes designed to improve nutritional status. A negative or remote relationship need not be assumed.

The woman's roles in domestic food acquisition and food use proceed under a whole range of constraints-personal, social, economic, and even governmental. Some of these are direct and others indirect, but both types are important to study in relation to food issues. A woman allocates her time and energy to food, cooking, and feeding according to the household circumstances and its priorities. The constraints of an urban rich family are generally different from those of the urban poor. In India, however, such a difference is particularly complicated by caste rank and its associated customs. The socio-economic constraints multiply. In order to be able to discuss interrelationships in India between the household and the government for food acquisition, this whole range of constraints, from general values to particular family customs, must be taken into account. The food policies and nutrition programmes of the government need to be placed against these constraints, to allow a realistic assessment of how the policies and plans relate (or do not relate) to the people's core concerns and their everyday behaviour.

Thus, the Indian woman must allocate her time and energy to food acquisition according to her household's economic position and social circumstance. If her household has a stable and sufficient income, her time and energy expense in food acquisition is less than that of a poor woman. If she is of a high caste it is often indirect, since she may have other persons (including servants) to buy food from markets. Her preoccupation with cooking and fuel acquisition will also be similarly light. Actually, she may seldom experience the food-fuel interdependence as critically as does her urban poor counterpart (3).

A secure and sufficient source of domestic income means a secure food budget and a greater involvement of household women in cuisine and hospitality. However, it does not mean that they also have better planned nutrition. On the other hand, an insecure and insufficient income means a precarious food budget and a correspondingly greater effort spent to acquire needed food. Women in these families actively participate in procuring both the food and fuel, for food is of little value without fuel. To these women, the importance of government subsidized food increases; the ration shops become the primary source for daily subsistence and survival. Since there are few other food sources in the city to rely upon, the government food and nutrition policies affect directly the daily meal and personal welfare of poor urban households. Figure 1 shows schematically a set of interrelated constraints for this segment of the population.

The Lucknow families show a clear influence of income pattern on domestic food acquisition. Some had monthly income from stable employment; others had either irregular monthly income, daily or weekly wages from regular employment, or an irregular income. Some had no income; they lived with relatives. An urban poor household usually depended on unstable sources of income, and this affected food acquisition. For example, if one household had a stable but subsistence monthly income and another depended on irregular but larger daily wages, the first reflected a stabler food acquisition strategy than the second. The urban poor with irregular income could not plan a food budget for a month; ironically, they also could not make full use of the government's food distribution policies and programmes. Their unstable income pattern often dictated an erratic (and often costlier) food-fuel purchase pattern. The women of such households managed food use from day to day, with little margin of safety or security, and any unforeseen event or accident involving the wage earner forced such women either to work as daily labourers or face hunger.

However, besides the above strictly economic and monetary interpretation of income, one should neither overlook nor downplay the usefulness of customary goods-and-service exchange arrangements between households. The Chamar households in Lucknow demonstrated how they depended on their relatives and friends to feed their families when they were unemployed. These arrangements often provided that extra margin of security and survival to the urban Chamar that ensured not only their physical survival but also a chance to recover with mutual support. This was a major dimension that the income data alone could not take into account.

In India, a place where such social obligations abound, this informal support system rests on four major sources: kinship, friendly reciprocation, gifts, and alms and philanthropy. For example, a sick and unemployed person may thus actually feed his family at his brother's place until he is healthy and reemployed. But this is done only as a last resort, for it injures one's honour and pride. Thus also emerges a common property among the rich and the poor: All households want to achieve and maintain the necessary socio-economic independence in food acquisition and food use to retain their self-respect and social honour. The urban poor, whether of high caste or low, are no different in this regard.

FIG 1. Family and Food Policy Constraints in Food Acquisition in the Low-lncome Urban Population in India


The above socio-economic factors receive constant attention from women for another reason-buying food and fuel from the marketplace. A whole range of social criteria appear as the low-caste, poor women have to manage the task of purchasing food from the open market. In the Lucknow study, these women also showed how their domestic constraints were influenced by government policies for distributing rationed food. Generally, they had the following considerations as they bought food from an open market: (a) the available food budget, (b) availability of different foods in the market, (c) family food preference patterns, (d) available food bargains in the market, and (e) awareness of seasonal food shortages.

Alongside these market-related factors stood those that were familial and personal in nature. For example, the low-caste, poor women approached the food market according to their social place and authority within the family to make decisions in the market on the quality and quantity of food purchase. Women with greater social authority and decision-making power made better food purchases. However, some further constraints also appeared-for example, a personal knowledge about different qualities of cereals, fruits, vegetables, and meats; the availability of personal time and energy for regular food shopping; and the facility to carry the purchased food to one's home.

Similarly, when these women go to buy food from a government-operated ration shop in India, they have to keep another set of considerations in mind. This is because the domestic and government policy constraints must converge if these women are to be encouraged to buy the available and allotted ration (i.e., the food and fuel commodities one is entitled to buy on behalf of the family) from a fair-price shop. Both the government and the householder also have to know each other's rules, limitations, and constraints. If the government sets a policy but cannot implement it sufficiently or if it runs short of food supplies, the householder has to learn to cope with such situations. On the other hand, the government must learn to adapt bureaucratic rules for food entitlements, ration cards, and record-keeping so that they best serve the needs of the people (for a comparative discussion of rationing in the Indian context, see reference 4).. The low-caste, poor women in my study repeatedly mentioned a series of factors that were important for domestic as well as policy reasons (table 1).

TABLE 1. Primary Considerations at the Ration Shop

Considerations Customers Local Policy or Programme Popular Observations
Face Considerations  
Valid ration card Record-keeping Necessary
Schedule of the ration shop Administrative management Necessary
Erratic ration supply (rice, wheat, cereals, kerosene, etc.) in the shop Need, stock, and food- movement constraints Capricious supply system
Quality (appearance, texture, and taste) of available commodities Distribution of what is available and judged harmless Ration foods generally of poor quality
Quantity of available commodities In policy, shortages are to be avoided; in practice, occasional shortages are unavoidable Shortages disappoint; they reflect bad local management
Delays and inefficiency at the shop In policy, these are to be avoided; in practice, they are inadvertent Increasingly callous attitude of shopkeeper and helpers
Long waiting lines In policy, more shops should open to meet demand; in practice, administrative and financial hurdles abound Ration shops are increas ingly time-consuming and tiring but are the only recourse for the needy

If a woman starts with a conception of her own social rights, constraints, and perspectives about domestic food acquisition and use, she also recognizes a whole network of criteria and decisions of others that she carries with her to an open food market or government-run ration shop. No realistic analysis or evaluation of a local food programme or policy can ignore this complexity, especially since it is neither irrational nor unexpected, and no "programme input" concerned with intra-family food distribution can hope to bypass it. A full, efficient, and realistic feedback system between the local and national levels of programme and policy analysis can be built only on this foundation. Since "to date few efforts have been made to analyze how the black box at the local level influences the outcome of specific national programs" (5), the above discussion should illustrate what we should expect, at least in part, within the black box, and how such constraints might influence the outcome of a specific programme.

Decision-making and decisions on household food budget and food acquisition are important domestic prerogatives in a country like India. They are jealously guarded, even by the poor. Hence governments, policy experts, and nutritionists are likely to encounter problems if they attempt to make all such decisions themselves in order to treat the malnourished directly. A direct approach and food allocation to the malnourished (or to any other individual household member) violates the household's sense of social propriety and economic interdependence. Such a step distrusts and downgrades household decision-making and it values, encouraging the family to resist and mistrust the government's intention in return (6, 7).

TABLE 2. Lucknow Chamar Women's Approximate Time Expenditure (in Hours) on Food and Fuel Acquisition per Week, January 1980




Most frequent
Other Most frequent
Young mothers in extended family (with one or more infants) (12)* 3 4 Too time-
affects child care
2 4 Too tiring; costly
Older mothers (12) 3 6 Disrupts routine; tiring 4 6 Do not mind gleaning and storing; purchase costly
( 12)
3 2 Too tiring; do not want to do it unless necessary 2 3 Occasionally or only when Necessary
Young mothers alone in family (with one or more infants) (6) 5 6 Must do it but disrupts cooking, child care, family chores 4 6 Unavoidable
but bonetiring

Normally, families try to acquire food and fuel during one trip, but it is not always feasible either because of shortage of funds and time or because of shortage of food or fuel at the ration shop.

* Numbers in parentheses refer to the number of women investigated systematically.


The Indian woman is also most usually found at the centre of domestic food budgets, food allocation, and food use. She is all the more critical if the household is poor and of low caste. Almost all her time and energy are devoted to food, feeding, and family welfare. Barring any serious personal handicap, sickness, or conflict, she gives greatest priority to her husband and children, followed by other relatives (near and distant), neighbours, and family friends. The allocation of her time and energy follows the same scale of priority. She spends time every day making decisions on domestic food use; she also negotiates a compromise between what is needed, what is desired, and what is actually feasible. However, for the low-caste and low-income household, the question whether a woman has to earn or not by working outside the home makes a major difference in the above roles. If she must work outside the house to feed the family, her allocation of time and energy to all normal domestic chores (e.g., cleaning, washing, cooking, feeding, and nursing) comes under a severe strain. She must either downgrade her domestic priorities, exert physically much more, or give up the wage-work in desperation.

Women's division of time and energy for intra-household feeding follows certain competing cultural priorities and social obligations. A knowledge of such priorities may be useful for planning nutrition programmes and undertaking policy analysis. The low-caste, low-income Lucknow women spent most of their time and energy in the following order: first, on the health, feeding, and care of husband, children, and resident family relatives; second, on domestic chores; and third, on maintaining assigned social obligations and ritual duties. The same women also emphasized a widely shared personal preference: They dislike spending excessive time and energy outside the home in a marketplace or on a job. If they had to do so, they felt dissatisfied because it led to family neglect. For policy purposes it may be useful to remember that these women made easier ad)ustments in their time and energy allocations within the house, and that they made most decisions about domestic food use and nutrition by consultation and compromise. However, effectiveness eroded and their informal control over the daily meal slipped under persistent family discord.

The low-caste, low-income women also substantiated a point of the larger Indian culture: Married women acquired greater influence and authority in food use and feeding as they begat children, especially sons, and as their sons married. From the bride's point of view, it was better to live with her motherin-law as long as her own children were small. Such an arrangement assured better health and nutritional care of children, though it also meant loss of personal independence and more domestic work for the whole extended family. As table 2 shows, young mothers living alone with several small children spent the most time on food and fuel acquisition. They were hardest pressed for time and energy to take care of their families and themselves. They also showed poor eating habits and health problems. It is as if the Indian food distribution policies are still least suited to low-income nuclear families. Mothers-inlaw (i.e., husbands' mothers) help this situation despite the social control they impose. Table 2 also shows that older mothers, with more time at their disposal, spent same time in the market meeting friends and gossiping with them. The figures presented in the table include this time, since it was difficult to separate it from other time.

The above pattern of time and energy expenditure is reinforced in table 3 (8), where the allocation of time spent in cooking and feeding is arranged against the same four groups of the Chamar women. Again, young mothers (with their most common comments) betray maximum strain. Though the older mothers spent just about as much time on cooking and feeding as the young mothers living alone with husbands and children, the older mothers included cooking and feeding done expressly for pleasure or social occasions. The pressure and priorities on the young mother's time were distinctly different. Hence, it is important that the time and energy expenditure data should not only be carefully collected, but also interpreted within the given contextual and cultural significance. Placed out of context, the same data can misinform or distort reality, eluding what goes on within the black box.

TABLE 3. Lucknow Chamar Women's Average Daily Time Expenditure (in Hours) on Cooking and Feeding, January 1980

Group Cooking Comments Feeding Comments
Young mothers in extended family (with one or more infants) 112) 4 Daily cooking is exhausting; complaints of unequal division

of labour

2 Feeding is not
Older mothers (12) 51/2 Cooking for pleasure included; cooking is resented when longer than seven hours 2 Feeding is not
a chore
Mothers-in-law (12) 21/2 The role of a helper; Supervision important 21/2 Feeding is liked; supervision is
Younger mothers alone in family (with one or more infants) (6) 5 Daily cooking unavoidable but tiring 21/2 Child-feeding is important but Time- consuming

In comparison to the upper-caste data collected and reported elsewhere (8), the Untouchable households spend less time on cooking and feeding every day. Both customs and economics are responsible for the difference.

* Mother-in-law normally exercises authority over the actual distribution of cooked food within the family.

An important implication of the above evidence is that women constitute not one but several categories (e.g., the subgroups listed in tables 2 and 3), each different and distinct in its role towards intra family food use and each distinctly relevant to Indian issues about nutrition programmes and food policy. Accordingly, each subgroup has to be treated not only according to nutrition needs and programme goals, but also for the different roles (whether positive, negative, or indifferent) each group routinely plays in meal planning, meal allocation, and health care within the household. Thus, it is also obvious that not all adult women carry equal or the same responsibility for food allocation within the Indian household. For instance, the critical role of all mothers and "mother-like" women, including, of course, the famous Indian mother-in-law, cannot be overlooked.

The husband's mother in India represents a unique junction of intra-family authority, influence, communication, and education. Among the Lucknow Brahmans and Chamars, mothers-in-law regularly decided on matters of food use, family nutrition, and child health. They often controlled the actual daily allocation of other family women's time, energy, and roles within the kitchen and outside. However, as they enforced the family norms and observances, they also cared for the whole family. Unless a widow or a wife of a totally nonearning dependent husband, a mother-in-law within the Indian family is a force to reckon with. Programmes of nutrition education, food allocation, and nutrition intervention must therefore meet with her approval if they are to be more than a passing influence within the household. This may be true not only in India but in many other Asian societies as well.

The general significance of such a discussion is that the intrahousehold food allocation and nutritional care may normally be shaped by one or more such crucial persons. Whether a family head, a mother-in-law, or an uncle, such a person and his/her communication network cannot be overlooked in a well-planned nutrition programme or policy. However, this intra-househoid sociological and psychological reality may be ignored when the nutritionist plans only for direct intervention by individuals. Actually, a recognition of the intra-household communication network is as necessary as an understanding of how the network remains open to practical improvements. With such knowledge, the planning as well as the administration of a nutritional programme can go on with a strong ally within the household.

Because a food and nutrition expert is most interested in learning about the normal daily food allocation procedures and their customary priorities, daily cooking and feeding patterns must be rigorously studied. They give him the concrete signals for designing a more sensitive nutrition programme and policy and devising ways to influence unhelpful attitudes and decisions of the family. Such descriptions also tell how the people tend to treat the malnourished and the undernourished. Finally, an in-depth study of the indigenous food allocation priorities and procedures helps avoid dogmatic conclusions, whether it is that the local food allocation system is entirely unhelpful to the problem of malnutrition or that the local system is the only and best one. Either extreme is most often unrealistic.

Similarly, the issue of women's role in intra-household food allocation is best approached by avoiding a skewed view or an extreme position. For example, one need not assume that women somehow always want to neglect or avoid feeding girls and favour boys with better and more foods or that women not only dominate but control all the food allocation within the family. Such precautions keep the research open to different and more complete data; they also make the research socially sensitive and reasonable. For example, a nutrition programme that gains the confidence of the women who customarily acquire and influence food allocation within the family is likely to be far more effective than a programme that distrusts them and employs outside project personnel to feed and monitor malnourished individuals in a village. Further, such a programme is also likely to find ways to put the women's customary allocation of time and energy to a use that will incorporate better nutrition information and practice. However, such an influence rests on appreciation of the women's criteria of priority and significance in food acquisition and allocation within the house. Such criteria need to be completely taken into account while designing as well as executing a nutrition policy or a programme.


This paper highlights the following points, especially in relation to some sociological-anthropological considerations useful in studying the woman's role in intra-household food acquisition and use:

1. When viewed socio-culturally, issues of domestic food acquisition and allocation relate directly to the value patterns and economic conditions of the families, and to the roles of women in them.

2. When Indian women's roles are studied in their larger context, they show how food acquisition and allocation depend on a whole range of socio-economic constraints on the women, on the households, and on the private as well as the government-regulated food markets. Such multiple constraints operate simultaneously, and a nutrition programme or policy design will do well to take them carefully into account.

3. Intra-family food acquisition and feeding are a cherished and major domain of preoccupation of Indian women. They are a part of these women's self-worth and a family's social status and prestige. Careful study and appreciation of the intrahousehold decision-making is therefore necessary to pave the way for a more effective acceptance of nutrition programmes and policies.

4. Reasonable and balanced research is necessary to discern people's own perspectives and priorities in food allocation. They are neither flawless nor dispensable. Such an approach is encouraged when people's priorities and experiences are examined in context and when people's values and viewpoints are allowed to inform the specialist as a part of the total empirical data.

5. As this paper has illustrated on a limited basis, the relationships between the input and output of a nutrition programme or policy deserve an in-depth study of selected critical factors. Such a study may render the black box less opaque.


The data for this paper were collected in Lucknow, India, during January and February 1980 as part of a larger study while I was on a senior fellowship of the American Institute of Indian Studies. I am grateful to my research and field assistants, and especially to P. Kumar, who collected the data on domestic food consumption patiently and systematically for seven months.


1. P. Pinstrup-Andersen, "An Analytical Framework for Assessing the Nutrition Effects of Policies and Programs" (International Food Policy Research Institute, Washington, D.C., 1982).

2. A.-J. Berio, "Time Allocation and Women's Roles in Food-Related

Matters" (mimeographed, FAO, Rome, 1983).

3. R. S. Khare, "Constraints and Flexibilities in the Domestic Food and Energy Use in Urban India," (paper presented at the Symposium on Food Technology and Energy Use, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Toronto, Canada, 1982).

4. R. S. Khare and M. S. A. Rao, "Hospitality, Charity, and Rationing: Three Channels of Food Distribution in India," in R. S. Khare and M.S.A. Rao, eds., Food, Society, and Culture, (Carolina Academic Press, Durham, N.C., USA, in press).

5. E. T. Kennedy and P. Pinstrup-Andersen, "Nutrition-Related Policies and Programs: Past Performance and Research Needs" (International Food Policy Research Institute, Washington, D.C., 1982).

6. A. C. Harberger, "Basic Needs Versus Distributed Weights in Social Cost-Benefit Analysis" (World Bank, Washington, D.C., 1979).

7. M. Selowsky and L. Taylor, "The Economics of Malnourished Children: An Example of Disinvestment in Human Capital," Economic Devel. Cult. Change, 22 (1): 17 (1973).

8. R. S. Khare, The Hindu Hearth and Home (Carolina Academic Press, Durham, N.C., USA, 1976).

Contents - Previous - Next