Issues & Answers: Hunger
Hunger (huň′ gər), noun. 1 a: a craving or urgent need for food or a specific nutrient; b: an uneasy sensation occasioned by the lack of food; c: a weakened condition brought about by prolonged lack of food1.
Many of us think we know what hunger is. We experience hunger when dinner is a little late. Or we recognize hunger on nightly television news reports with pictures of match-stick-looking children with gaunt faces and bloated bellies. Too often we define hunger either as a personal experience of temporary discomfort or as mass starvation.
If we are to understand what world hunger really is, then we need to think about it in three different forms. First, hunger is starvation or acute hunger, resulting from famine. It is the kind of hunger that makes the evening news and morning headlines, moves us to tears, and compels us to make hunger contributions. No one fails to recognize hunger when it comes in the form of starvation.
Second, hunger is day-in-day-out malnutrition. Chronic hunger is not the kind of hunger associated with massive famine in Third World nations. A study by the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization estimates that 852 million people were undernourished between 2000 and 20022. Chronic hunger dulls the ability of children to learn in school, diminishes the productivity of adults, and weakens the immune system of aged adults. Malnutrition’s grinding, well-recognized side effects include susceptibility to disease and low-birth-weight infants.
Third, hunger is food insecurity. People who face food insecurity may not develop signs of clinical malnutrition, but they are at risk to hunger on a regular basis. They must scavenge for food in trash bins and depend on emergency or abnormal channels for access to food such as soup kitchens and food pantries. Literally millions of Americans experience food insecurity sometime every month.
Positively stated, food security means that people have access at all times through normal food channels to nutritionally adequate food.
Christians need to have a better understanding of the extent and causes of hunger. The more we know about hunger, the better equipped we are to design effective programs to reduce hunger at home and abroad.
The Extent of Hunger
How many people are hungry?
The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) estimates that 852 million people worldwide live in poverty3. Some policy experts place the figure closer to 1 billion while others hold to a lower figure of 700 million. Regardless of which estimate is more accurate, the number is staggering. What is important in responding to the enormous hunger needs is understanding which groups of people face hunger or are most likely to be at risk to hunger.
Without question, the world’s children are the ones most vulnerable to food crises. The FAO finds that 5 million children die each year from malnourishment and deficiencies in vitamins and minerals4. Millions more live in ill health and malnutrition.
UNICEF’s studies reveal the severe consequences of malnourishment for children around the world:
Malnutrition is implicated in more than half of all child deaths worldwide. Malnourished children have lowered resistance to infection; they are more likely to die from common childhood ailments like diarrhoeal diseases and respiratory infections, and for those who survive, frequent illness saps their nutritional status, locking them into a vicious cycle of recurring sickness and faltering growth. Their plight is largely invisible: three quarters of the children who die from causes related to malnutrition were only mildly or moderately undernourished, showing no outward sign of their vulnerability5.
The percentage of underweight children in developing nations has declined in recent years, from 33 percent to 28 percent, but many regions, including the Middle East, North Africa, and Sub-Saharan Africa, have experienced little change. Almost half, 47 percent, of South Asian children are underweight due to inadequate nutrition6.
Refugees are another segment of the world’s population at risk to hunger. They are sometimes known as the boat people. They have been called a fellowship of suffering. They have been recognized as the world’s homeless.
An estimated 11.9 million refugees and asylum seekers exist worldwide. Another 23.6 million people are displaced within their own nations. But since they have not crossed an international border, these people are not technically considered refugees under international and regional treaties. Both refugees and displaced persons are often hungry, homeless, and without much hope7.
On the home front, America also has a hunger problem. But politicians, policy makers, and anti-hunger activists cannot agree on the extent of the problem, in large measure because the nation does not have a “hunger index.” The United States has no mechanism to measure definitively the nutritional level of its citizens. The government can measure inflation, unemployment, and numerous other factors. The government, however, is unable or unwilling to measure hunger.
The extent of hunger in America must be determined with data from emergency food center surveys, medical reports, investigative news stories, governmental poverty statistics, and the number of recipients of welfare programs. What emerges is a picture in which the poor are the ones most at risk to hunger8.
Among America’s poor, no group is more at risk than children. In 2002, 35 percent of children under age 18 lived in poverty, while this age group represented disproportionately only one-fourth of the population. The greatest segment of Americans in poverty is children under age 6. Over 18 percent of these children lived in an impoverished household, and a staggering 48 percent of children living with only a female householder experienced poverty. An estimated 12.1 million children under age 18 resided below the poverty line9.
The nation’s elderly are another group at risk to hunger. Some 3.6 million citizens over the age of 65 have incomes below the poverty line. A large percentage of them would go hungry on a weekly basis if they did not receive home-delivered meals10.
The homeless are another group, and perhaps the most visible one. Although disagreement exists over the number of homeless people (estimates range from 500,000 to 3 million), they can be seen in downtown libraries, under overpasses, and outside post offices. Families represent startling portions of the homeless, including 38 percent in Chicago, 58 percent in Denver, and 82 percent in Trenton, New Jersey11.
One of the most overlooked groups of people at risk to hunger is the working poor. Americans working a full-time, minimum-wage job may not earn enough to meet the food, shelter, and health care needs of their families.
The Causes of Hunger
The causes of hunger are multidimensional and deny the temptation of simple answers. Hunger does not result simply from the lack of rain or overpopulation. It is not just a matter of poor economic choices. Hunger is complex and often misunderstood.
War. A major contributing factor to hunger is war. Civil and international wars cause hunger through the disruption of farming, the destruction of marketing facilities, the displacement of people, and the decline of economic growth.
At the height of the 1984-1985 African famine, civil wars raged in five nations: Angola, Mozambique, Chad, Ethiopia, and the Sudan. These nations housed the largest bulk of those Africans who faced hunger.
Economics. National and international economic decisions contribute to hunger. In the United States, some people face hunger due to unfair taxes. The sales tax on food, for example, reduces the amount of income available to the poor to purchase food. Another example is the lack of governmental competitive bidding on the purchase of commodities supplied to welfare recipients, which decreases the amount of funds available.
Some government-controlled market economies create hunger when they encourage the growth of cash crops rather than food crops12. Growing cotton rather than grain may be good for a nation’s balance of payments, but it takes away the incentive for rural farmers to grow food.
Additionally, global consumer patterns sometimes contribute to hunger. The most fertile farmland in the Third World is often diverted from producing food for domestic consumption to food for foreign consumption. Coffee, cocoa, sugar, and tea are grown for the breakfast tables of northern industrialized nations, rather than cereals for those in impoverished lands.
Environment. Almost everyone recognizes that too little rain causes droughts and too much rain causes floods, both of which lead to crop failure and then famine. More and more people are beginning to understand the interrelated nature of the ecological system. For example, the Sahara Desert is being pulled 10 miles southward every year due to man-made causes. Overgrazing, over-cultivation, and deforestation have transformed once productive farm lands into wastelands.
Environmental mismanagement destroys natural barriers to soil and wind erosion, uprooting the very things that hold moisture and fertile soil in place. The loss of topsoil may account for declining crop yields.
Population. Perhaps no cause of hunger is more hotly debated within some circles than the issue of the relationship between population and hunger.
Some people think that overpopulation causes hunger. They reason that too many mouths to feed exist in a world with too little food. Their solution to the hunger problem is to reduce birthrates, especially in nations with soaring rates.
A second group believes that hunger and economic insecurity cause overpopulation. They argue that impoverished parents often have many children in order to contribute to the work force and in hopes that some will provide for them in their old age. This group holds that the solution to overpopulation is economic security.
The third group thinks that the problem is not overpopulation at all. The problem is not too many mouths to feed, but an inadequate food distribution system. They point out that the world produces in grain alone enough food for everyone to have 3,500 calories a day13.
Blaming hunger on overpopulation is a popular approach. It allows people to feel that the hunger problem is someone else’s problem. It frees them from a sense of responsibility.
The debate over the relationship between overpopulation and hunger is unlikely to disappear in the near future. It has been debated for over a century. It is probably going to be discussed as long as large population centers place enormous stress on certain nations through environmental destruction, unemployment, and governmental instability.
- Apathy. Perhaps one of the most serious causes of hunger is apathy within the Christian community. Christians have been moved to make occasional contributions to hunger relief efforts. But when quick-fix solutions have not appeared, we have become discouraged and have begun to think that we cannot make a difference. Often we just give up.
A prerequisite for Christian action in a hungry world is the study of the Bible. The Bible speaks frequently and forcefully about the issue of hunger. The Bible points out that hunger has always been part of the sinful human drama (Gen. 3:17-19; 41:25-36; 2 Kings 6:25; Acts 11:27-30).
The Bible also says that the covenant community has an obligation to care for the weakest members of society (Deut. 10:17-19; 15:11; Isa. 1:16-17; Acts 6:1-7; 2 Cor. 8-9). It shows that God’s only Son fed the hungry (Luke 6:1-5; 9:10-17) and associated with the poor (Matt. 15:30-38; Luke 2:21-24; 4:18-19; 14:12-14).
Moreover, the Bible discloses strategies to reduce hunger. The law of gleaning (Lev. 19:9-10; Deut. 24:19-21; Ruth 2:2-23), the sabbatical year (Exod. 23:10-11; Deut. 15:1-18; Jer. 34:8-22), and the pursuit of justice (Deut. 16:10-20; Isa. 1:1-17; 61:8; Amos 2:6-7; 4:1; 5:11; 8:6) are some of the approaches. Others include interchurch aid (Acts 2:41-46; 4:34-37; 6:1-7) and intrachurch aid (Acts 11:27-30; Rom. 15:22-33).
“Drop by drop the bucket fills.”
This Swahili proverb reveals the enduring truth that individual actions add up. What one person does about world hunger often seems to be “just a drop in the bucket.” But everybody adding drops can fill the bucket. Here are some suggestions for what one person can do in a hungry world:
- Pray on a daily basis for the hungry and the wisdom to act in a hungry world. Make prayer about hunger as central as prayer about other personal concerns.
- Study what the Bible says about the poor and the hungry.
- Give to the hunger ministries of the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board and International Mission Boards. While Southern Baptists have increased giving to worldwide hunger relief,. on average But we are still giving is still less than $1 per person each year.
- Read a book about the hunger issue this year.
- Volunteer to serve once a month at a shelter for the homeless, soup kitchen, or food bank in your community.
- Grow a garden for the elderly and needy in your community.
- Talk with fellow church members about the problem of hunger and the Bible’s call to Christians to care for the hungry.
In addition to individual initiatives, Christians can help the hungry through local church efforts, associational ministries, and state convention projects, as well as through the North American and International Mission Boards. Consider these suggestions:
- Collect canned foods. Some churches collect specially designated food items such as peanut butter once a year to support a local food bank.
- Glean farm fields of unharvested produce. Some church youth groups have participated in mission action projects which glean farm fields and channel the produce through area soup kitchens and food banks. If just a fraction of the 60 million tons of food which rots in American farm fields were harvested, it would go a long way toward meeting temporary food needs.
- Sponsor a food sack drive in your community. Some associations have organized food drives which begin on a Saturday with the distribution of grocery sacks and request for area families to fill the sacks with a special list of items. The next Saturday, the sacks are collected. The food goes to feed needy people in the area.
- Observe World Hunger Day, the second Sunday in October on the Southern Baptist Convention calendar. The North American and International Mission Boards receive over 30 percent of all their hunger gifts after the observance of World Hunger Day in local churches. The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission produces materials to assist churches in the observance of the day each year.
- Host an area-wide conference on hunger for church members. Invite missionaries to speak about human-needs ministries. Ask elected officials to address public policy issues related to hunger.
- Hold an associational hunger event such as a walk to raise funds for hunger ministries at home and abroad, as well as to increase awareness about need and efforts to meet the need.
- Volunteer to go abroad through the International Mission Board to drill wells, to build ponds, to teach cultivation, to meet basic health care needs, and to administer food distribution programs.
- Organize a stateside mission project to build or repair homes for the impoverished. Everyone deserves a decent place to live.
1 Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed.
2 Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2004, 6.
3 Ibid., 6.
4 Ibid., 8.
5 UNICEF, “Statistics.” http://childinfo.org/areas/malnutrition/ .
7 U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, World Refugee Survey, 2004 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Committee for Refugees, 2004), 1. Also available at http://www.refugees.org/article.aspx?id=1157 .
8 Robert Parham, What Shall We Do in a Hungry World? (Birmingham: New Hope, 1988), 38-40.
9 U.S. Census Bureau, Poverty in the United States, 2002, 7.
11 U.S. Conference of Mayors-Sodexho, Inc., Hunger and Homelessness Survey 2005. Also available at http://www.usmayors.org/uscm/hungersurvey/2005/HH2005FINAL.pdf .
12 L1oyd Timberlake, Africa in Crisis: The Causes, the Cures of Environmental Bankruptcy (London: Earthscan Paperback, 1985), 19.
13 Food First: Institute for Food and Development Policy, The Myth-Scarcity: The Reality — There IS Enough Food, Backgrounder, Vol. 5, No. 1 (Spring 1998).