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One of the most common methods for identifying food insecure households or regions is to look at the frequency and types of coping strategies (in conjunction with consumption, expenditure, food share, and nutritional status indicators). Coping strategies are used to offset threats to a household’s food and economic resources in times of hardship. The different types of coping strategies are markers of the severity of conditions, often categorized into four distinct stages of destitution (Corbett, 1988). It needs to be noted that there is a spectrum of situations that may precipitate crises, possibly ranging from normal, seasonally-linked low/zero production, to consecutive years of poor production, to natural disasters and armed conflict. When it comes to assessing food security, less emphasis is placed on seasonality-linked insecurity, and more is dedicated to identifying those that are experiencing a "spiraling-down", i.e., progressively more drastic coping strategies practiced due to worsening food security.

The issue of complex emergencies and how coping strategies relate to them is also important to keep in mind. Coping strategies need to be seen in context, and in complex emergencies the situation is different than in situations relating to consecutive seasons of crop failure or seasonal dips in the amount of stored food/resources to obtain food. For example, people suffering due to poor agricultural production might slowly move from stage 1 to stage 2 or 3, whereas in complex emergencies, people might be 'shocked' directly into strategies of state 3 or 4, due to sudden external forces such as a flood or armed conflict. One must understand, coping strategies are employed in order to stave off destitution or great suffering with the hopes of reversing the situation and again attaining food and livelihood security. Thus, generally only when it is absolutely necessary for survival will individuals sell productive assets or migrate in order to feed the household.

When food access lessens or resources wane, adaptations employed might be diet change (maize instead of rice), reduction in the number of meals per day (rationing), gathering of wild foods, seeking wage labor, and borrowing from relatives; these are considered first stage strategies. If the shortage continues or worsens, the household would enter the second stage, where more drastic measures would be implemented, such as selling non-productive assets (jewelry, goats), taking out loans outside of kinship network, temporarily migrating for work (or land to farm), or skipping meals for an entire day. In the third stage the situation worsens even further, thus the sale of land, equipment, animals, and other productive assets would occur. Stage four, destitution, involves permanent migration, probably in search of food aid, due to the fact that they are too weak and/or diseased to work. As can be seen, more severe (and sometimes more numerous) Coping Strategies are practiced under worse conditions.