How hunger and obesity go together

February 26, 2014

Global hunger is shrinking. Yet each winter operators of food banks in rich countries like the United States and Britain speak movingly of the plight of those who must choose between heating and eating. The desperation seen by Feeding America and the British Trussell Trust is real enough, but this is not a massive economic failure. The weakness is predominantly social.

When people do not have enough to eat, there are three possible causes: an inadequate food production system, a bad political choice or poor personal arrangements. Through most of history, the first problem was the most important cause of hunger. However, as the economist Amartya Sen pointed out three decades ago, food shortages can no longer be acts of nature.

The reason for Sen’s judgment is that nature has been tamed. More than enough food is already produced globally to feed all the people, and the technology of food transport and storage is sufficiently advanced to get the food to those who need it most. When that does not happen, there must be a human problem. Within a country, a shortage of food comes down to a failure of government to serve the governed. Internationally, it is a failure of the strong countries to help the weak.

The proportion of the world’s population which the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations considers malnourished has declined from 19 percent to 12 percent in the last two decades. That is still much too high, and clearly shows a malign neglect by political and social leaders in many poor countries.

It is harder to say that developed economies fail the basic test of feeding their people. True, there is worrying evidence. According to the latest U.S. government survey of household food security, 5.7 percent of American families said they had “very low food security.” Food banks are becoming more prevalent in the UK.

Still, the U.S. number refers to people who say that limited resources forced them to reduce food intake at least once in the last year. While bad, that is not what most people would consider persistent hunger. Sacrificed meals are actually quite rare.

In Britain, even the Trussell Trust, which has blamed the increased demand for its services on the current government’s benefit cuts, does not claim there is a hungry class. It finds that many clients are temporarily caught in the morass of shifting government benefit programmes but will soon be able to pay for their own food. Others are dealing with temporary setbacks or are supplementing incomes that are not actually too low to provide adequate food.

In both countries, government and charitable programmes keep hunger away, but more should be done to ensure that everyone is fed enough every day. Food banks and U.S. food stamps (now known as SNAP) are especially helpful, because they deal specifically with this evil.

This direct treatment is important because many, probably most, of the people who actually miss meals suffer from the third source of hunger, chaotic lives. For these people, hunger is best understood as a symptom of some more intractable problem: an issue of mental health, family breakdown or substance abuse. The symptom can be treated even if the underlying problem cannot.

For the nation, the problem is certainly nothing like food shortage. On the contrary, obesity is more prevalent in poor people than the rich in developed economies, and obesity does more health damage than hunger in these countries. In rich nations, the poorest people are less likely to be deprived of the basic stuff of life than of what might be called basic social or cultural goods.

So people in developed economies are rarely overweight because they cannot afford healthier food. Poorer people tend to make worse food choices than their richer neighbours because of a physical and social environment that pushes them in that direction. The same sort of problem – the inability to take advantage of the good things that the affluent society has to offer – leaves the poor unduly unhealthy and undereducated. It leads to more broken families and more trouble with the law.

Multi-dimensional poverty is not unusual. The economically poor have usually also been the socially poor. In one way though, the poverty of today’s rich countries is a historical novelty: it often comes with a surfeit of things, including food. If the better off truly want to help the weaker members of the community, they should think less about the relatively easy problem of food and more about the much harder challenges of providing social goods.


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This article makes no sense.

“If the better off truly want to help the weaker members of the community, they should think less about the relatively easy problem of food and more about the much harder challenges of providing social goods.”

What does that mean? Fat people are fat because they eat too much, rich or poor. Chris Christie eats more than he burns. Al Gore, goes in and out. Rush Limbaugh….jesus christ. Bottom line, it’s everywhere. We don’t owe anyone skinny. That’s on the individual.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

“the poorest people are less likely to be deprived of the basic stuff of life than of what might be called basic social or cultural goods”? Hmm.. Well I might not be the ‘poorest of people’ but I qualify for food stamps ($140 a mo). I’m a mother of two. I make about $27,000 a year in my posh government (state) job. I spend about $150-$200 a week on food (almost 1/2 of my net earnings after deducting pension and all). I cook on most days from scratch, probably spend about 10 hours in the kitchen and 2 hours grocery shopping a week . We eat in all the time. Vegetables, fruits, chicken, fish (once a week), meat (once a week), whole grains, low fat dairy, etc. Unfortunately, my sons get mostly unhealthy free lunches at school (public of course), I can’t afford the time or the money to make healthy meals for them to take to school. I don’t have a car payment, I share a home/rent with my mother and sister, I don’t have cable, I spend $100 on a family phone plan (4 phones), we rarely go out, and I have no child care to pay for. Of course, I doubt I could dedicate 12 hrs a week for cooking healthy meals, if I didn’t have my sister and my mother to help me with the kids and the cleaning. So time is an issue. But the cost would be prohibitive if I had to pay off a car and/or child care, or wanted to have a life. I suggest if the better off ‘truly’ want to help poor people eat better they would do better by advocating for a living wage and a shorter work week.

Posted by ochun005 | Report as abusive

I’m usually a big fan of Mr. Hadas and his “take” on things. In this case, I would like to think someone has stolen his identity for unknown purposes.

Let’s define what a “rich country” is. In my opinion, a “rich country” has choices. OK, so the United States can have just about ANYTHING it wants, so long as it realizes it can’t have EVERYTHING it wants.

Even so, there will always be those who spend their welfare checks and food stamp money on drugs, or bling, or booze instead of food for themselves or their kids. There are those who keep having kids because they EXPECT society to provide a major part of their food, clothes, education. Already society forces the productive to “play their game” such they they “win” and the average American worker is made to look the fool.

So the question is NOT one of “enough food”, but of WHOSE food and should we sustain the undeserving at the same level as the deserving? When one removes the spectre of being cold or hungry completely, suddenly for a large number of individuals the motivation to get up early and get to work disappears. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I see that as a step AWAY FROM a sustainable society and NOT a solution to any existing problem.

There are whole countries whose so-called leaders would lose their privilege if the swollen stomachs and fly covered babies ever disappeared from their streets. That would mean the food shipments from “rich nations” would stop, along with the opportunities for theft, repackaging and re-sale.

There is a REASON for the signs “DO NOT FEED THE PIGEONS”. The number increases proportional to the food supply. The purpose of government is NOT to create and feed as many human beings as possible. It is to create a responsible, sustainable and self-sufficient society. To do otherwise merely moves the challenge forward to the time that this world CAN NOT produce enough food to feed everyone who “needs it”.

The task of ensuring that “everyone is fed enough every day” is one destined to fail. Fed what? What of they tire of manna? What if it is nutritionally incomplete and birth defects result? Who is responsible? Just because something CAN be done does NOT mean it SHOULD be done. There needs to be other goals and priorities that food is but a means to achieve over time.

If poorer people make poor food choices, make those choices FOR THEM. If they are unhealthy, make healthy choices mandatory in school. If they are undereducated, tie achievement to their access to nutrition.

If their lives are “chaotic” maybe dorm camps (like the depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps) could bring order and opportunity. Such social structure can go a long way towards resolving simple “mental health problems, family breakdown and substance abuse.

The sole solution for the “weaker members of the community” is to make them WANT to become full-fledged MEMBERS, ready and willing to do THEIR PART in that process. It’s for sure what we’re doing isn’t working.

I see no reason whatsoever to make this fast growing segment of American society warm, well fed wards of the state; perpetual parasites with no responsibility to it and whose social value is either absent or negative.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

To me, both hunger and obesity lead back to three simple root causes:
– the first is lack of social goodwill amongst people – who would let someone else starve or become obese if they cared about that person?
– the second is a lack of consciousness of the individuals concerned. Those who starve often were oblivious to the their food security prior to the situation getting out of control. Those who are obese often are unaware of the link between food quality and their condition. If both sides exerted consideration personal effort the problems could largely be addressed.
– the third issue is a mis-aligned government – existing mostly for personal power of politicians, economic privilege of their donors and grand scale war games that assert their nationalist pride over that of other peoples.

Posted by BidnisMan | Report as abusive

Parents need to be the final regulator of how much food and grease goes in their kid’s gut. It’s really that simple.

As a society, we can (and do) provide food aid to poor people. We should be proud of that. But the parents need to control the actual intake rate. That’s not really a government function.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

“I see no reason whatsoever to make this fast growing segment of American society warm, well fed wards of the state; perpetual parasites with no responsibility to it and whose social value is either absent or negative.” … Yeah, cause we already got Wall Street and the big banks for that.

Posted by ochun005 | Report as abusive


Excellent additional perspective that is “spot on”. Couldn’t agree more!

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

The issue discussed in this article is not a trivial or a short-term issue. To take an example from history, it is similar to the issue of the Irish Potato famine of 1845-52. At that time, while people were starving because of a failure of the potato crops, the country continued to be an exporter of wheat and beef. this gave rise to resentment against the large agricultural interests, many of which were British. The anti-British resentment stoked by the juxtaposition of starvation and plenty (with the division demarked along a clear social line) was one of the drivers of Irish attitudes towards Great Britain during the late 19th and throughout the 20th century.

Posted by Bob9999 | Report as abusive

There is such a thing as the wealthy becoming too wealthy and the poor becoming too poor. That was something recognized and heavily taxed during the post war years and the heyday of the middle class – the 1950s. And if wealth didn’t use it in a variety of productive “brick and mortar” investments, they lost it to taxation and the government did it for them. Since Reagan, that wisdom has been disassembled.

I just spent the last few days watching all sorts of YouTube Videos: Terry Jones “Medieval Lives”, A BBC series on ancient Rome, (they ignore too many ancient facts on “Nero”, and reviewing some books on European history and I’m also trying to read Vidal’s Lincoln.

It was obvious in both periods and continents, that wealth and power could manage to elevate itself so high above the mass of the nation that they barely saw the bottom anymore and only regarded the general population as a means to their own ends. Those ends could be idiotic and the people were reduced to being tools for more powerful interests that did not serve their own interests in the least. The Constitution of this country has evolved to guard against such social stratification to the point that the poor or political outsiders are made too ignorant to even vote.

The poor may overeat (but obesity is not exclusive to low income people) but so can the wealthy. Wealthy over eaters can hire, at great expense, the personal trainers and behavioral modification training that the low income can’t. They can also afford the plastic surgery, face lifts and tummy tucks the poor can’t. Wealth is great at concealing the character defects that poverty can’t. But they need the control of fortunes and vast networks of resources to keep that advantage.

tpo add to bob9999 and rather than recognize that the famine was destroying the small holders of Ireland, the landed aristocracy (many of them absentee British landlords) who controlled the government and courts used the famine as a legal excuse to foreclose on small holders and combine their lands into their own estates. That was a form of binge eating too. It forced out the dispossessed Irish to come here and elsewhere to be despised as poor, Catholic and Irish.

BTW – a big paunch and even a touch of gout was a sign of prosperity back then too. The poor tended to be thin.

Isn’t it noticeable, even obvious, that wealth can make a very subtle and intelligent human being but grinding poverty forces one to have to rely more on animal strengths. And the wealthy in their own world can start to treat themselves to the notion that they know better, are far more valuable to their own societies and the rest are disposable: after all “they will always make more of themselves.” General education and literacy has more or less killed that idea except where schools that have elite status tend to cost a lifetime’s ransom. They may not actually deserve that reputation on the basis of their course offerings.

Human beings are too far separated from their simian roots even to make effective animals again. Our “noble animals” the athletes, are really a product of wealth and training. They are works of art. Real poverty makes misery and disease. So the low income eat and use drugs to feel better. But so do the wealthy, on mega doses of the same substances. Being wealthy can make intellectual and social stresses but being poor can challenge a human being where they are weakest – their animal nature.

The Roman world needed the vast outlays for banquets, the games and lavish public buildings to keep the money moving in their very primitive economies. WE still do.

Nothing on earth seems to be all that efficiently used. Almost everything people do, at any level of income, is some kind of “substance abuse”. And the economies of the world love the inefficiency and abuse far more than they love the spare, the trim and the economical. Too much efficiency may be profitable for some but leaves out the
bulk of its potential market if it goes too far. The roman masses actually loved Nero. He spread the money around and made work. The wealthy would have sat on it and feathered their own and their families nests until they owned or controlled every resource in the empire.

The industrialized societies are becoming economies where the human body is actually becoming a handicap and a nuisance. The expense of keeping the human body alive and well is also one of the principal drains on it’s strength now. In the past we had wars to drain the surplus labor and lives. It can’t keep going that way or the future could become one where the economy runs itself and despises its raison d’etre. It seems to be doing that now.

You can see it in many comments that there is a real urge to launch Armageddons. It some kind of age old instinct or expectation and many of us are becoming too smart or “wise” to fall for that anymore. But we don’t seem to know how to live without it either.

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