This paper describes the food economy approach and, based on case studies from Zimbabwe and Kenya, illustrates how this approach links livelihood information to an analysis of the effects of political, economic and social change. Food economy analysis is an analytical framework designed to help decision-makers understand the effects of different shocks on household livelihood options. While the original food economy work of the early 1990’s aimed simply to understand how people made ends meet, more recent work in situations of chronic conflict and political instability has developed more sophisticated analyses of the household effects of macro-political and economic changes. The paper shows how food economy analysis is particularly helpful in determining appropriate responses and targeting of both relief and development interventions. In Zimbabwe, food economy analysis has been used to establish an urban baseline to monitor the effects of macroeconomic shocks on households’ access to food, cash income and basic services in relation to the current political crisis. Food economy assessments carried out in the northern pastoral areas of Kenya have built up livelihood pictures to understand the inter-related causes of particular drought outcomes. The case studies show that not only is it possible to conduct livelihoods assessments in situations of chronic conflict and political instability but it is also essential in designing appropriate interventions and in determining who most needs external assistance. Because the food economy framework logically organises and structures different types and levels of information, it provides a powerful impetus for coordinated information gathering and analysis, helping to build consensus around findings and conclusions, leading to faster and more accurate decision-making.