How hunger and obesity go together
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.