Trees are sources of food, especially fruits, critical for healthy diets. Trees also modify microclimate, water and nutrient flows for crops and livestock, and are a source of income, allowing forest-edge communities to be food-sufficient through trade without cutting down forests. Opportunities for ecological intensification, utilizing trees in agricultural landscapes, vary along stages of a tree cover transition of forest alteration and deforestation followed by agroforestation. The nonlinear forest transition curve can provide both a theory of change (similarity of processes) and a theory of place (configuration of state variables). We reviewed local perspectives on food security for four configurations of the forest and landscape transition in Southeast Asia, with local human population densities ranging from less than 10 to 900 km-2 to explore how current generic ‘theories of change’ on how to achieve global food security need more explicit ‘theories of place’ that take such differences into account.