Sri Lanka is cited as an exemplary case of direct poverty alleviation because of a long history of social welfare and high values in quality of life indices. Notwithstanding, anti-poverty measures in Sri Lanka founded on the international discourse of poverty and development do not serve the interests of poor people. This discourse begins by locating poor people in a distinct poverty sector and proceeds to examine its characteristics. Several attributes of that discourse make it intellectually incapable of seeing how poverty is socially constructed in a diffused nexus of production relations that extends far beyond the so-called ‘poverty sector’. An alternative ‘substantive approach to poverty’ is presented. The arguments are illustrated using the theme of food production in Sri Lanka.