Food Justice

Hunger and Poverty

Hunger and Poverty

The main cause of hunger is poverty and lack of power to access nutritious food

February 5, 2013

The persistence of hunger in today’s world is, simply put, a paradox. It is estimated that 870 million people in the world are undernourished, and at least 2 billion suffer from vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Yet there is more than enough food to adequately feed the world population. In 2008, 1.29 billion people lived on less than US$1.25 a day. They suffered from hunger because they were stuck in the poverty trap. 

Poverty Causes Hunger

The main cause of hunger is poverty and lack of power to access nutritious food. With limited income, poor persons are forced to weigh necessities and decide whether it is more crucial to eat three meals a day or purchase medicine for a family member who is ill. Without the means to attend school, the poverty-stricken are unable to get an education and lay the foundations for a secure future. They do not have enough resources to produce enough food for their families or to buy food from the markets. They are stuck in a vicious cycle: the poverty trap.

The Hungry Produce Most of the World’s Food

Ironically, most of the world’s hungry people are the very same people who produce food for a living. In Africa, 60 percent of the population works in the countryside, growing crops and herding animals, earning less than US$1 a day. Because they lack basic resources, such as water, tools and infrastructure, the yields of these farmers are significantly lower than are those of their counterparts in the United States and Europe. 

Burden on Women

According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, women produce between 60 and 80 percent of the food in most developing countries and are responsible for half of the world’s food production. In Africa, women comprise 70 percent of the agricultural workforce, and do 80-100 percent of the food production tasks, like hoeing, weeding, food storage, transport and processing. Yet women own less than 2 percent of land worldwide and, from countries where information is available, only 10 percent of credit allowances are extended to women.

Of the world’s illiterate people, two-thirds are women. In Kenya, where the amount of education that women receive is extremely low, studies show that a year of primary education for all female farmers would boost maize yields by 24 percent. Such an increase could be enough to pull some people out of poverty and, subsequently, hunger.

Additionally, women often eat after their families and in times of crises forgo meals altogether so that their families may eat.

Those Hit Hardest by Rising Food Prices Already Live in Poverty

According to the World Bank, the food price crisis of 2007–2008 pushed an additional 100 million people into poverty. Estimates projected that 183 million people would become vulnerable to famine and, as a result, suffer from malnutrition. Although rising food prices have exacerbated hunger, persistent rural poverty is to blame. Those hit the hardest were already living in poverty.

In rich countries, people spend 10 to 20 percent of their income on food. In many poor countries, people spend 60 percent—and sometimes up to 80 percent—of their budget on food. Due to these circumstances, poor persons are consuming less food of nutritional value, leading to malnutrition. 

Inequality Exacerbates Hunger

Poverty is associated not only with poor economic growth but also with an unequal distribution of income. According to ATD Fourth World, 20 percent of the global population has 90 percent of the wealth. As U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Olivier de Schutter states, hunger is not only the result of there being too little food produced; it is the result of massive rural and urban poverty. Just as poverty contributes to hunger, hunger is a cause of poverty. Without adequate food, poor persons are unable to get an education, maintain a job or provide for their families. In this way, they are bound to hunger and consequently stuck in the poverty trap. 

The Effects of Hunger

While poverty varies in each country and region, its effects are much the same. Around the world, poverty causes families in desperate situations to sell off productive assets, compromising their ability to escape long-term poverty. When food prices rise, families are forced to reduce the number of meals they consume—often from three meals a day to two, and sometimes from two to just one.

Worldwide, malnutrition contributes to 3.5 million preventable deaths of children under age five every year, according to the Scale Up Nutrition Framework of Action. The consequences of late intervention are devastating and can lead to long-term negative health consequences, including starvation, stunting of growth, overweight and obesity. In addition, poverty and hunger can jeopardize a person’s right to food, a universal human right that guarantees all persons the ability to feed themselves—either by purchasing food or producing it. To solve the problem of hunger, we must address poverty.

Sarika Mathur works for the office of Global Justice at United Methodist Women on issues around food and hunger; women’s rights; and international peace and security.

Posted or updated: 2/4/2013 11:00:00 PM