What Is Hunger?

Posted on in Healthy Living by Frances Moore Lappé


Television images haunt us. Stunted, bony bodies. Long lines waiting for a meager bowl of gruel. This is famine hunger in its acute form, the kind no one could miss.

But hunger comes in another form. The dayin, day-out hunger of hundreds of millions of people and nutritional deprivation affecting many more. While chronic hunger doesn’t make the evening news, it takes more lives than famine. Every day this largely invisible hunger, and its related preventable diseases, kill as many as 8,000 children under the age of 5. That’s roughly three million children each year. Imagine: every eight days the number of children lost worldwide equals the entire death toll of the Hiroshima bomb.

Statistics like this are staggering. They shock and alarm. But numbers can also numb. They can distance us from what is actually very close to us. So we asked ourselves: What, really, is hunger?

Is it the gnawing pain in the stomach when we miss a meal? The physical depletion of those suffering chronic undernutrition? The listless stare of a dying child in the television hunger appeal? Yes, but it is more. We became convinced that as long as we conceive of hunger only in physical measures, we will never truly understand it, certainly not its roots.

What, we asked ourselves, would it mean to think of hunger in terms of universal human emotions, feelings that all of us have experienced at some time in our lives? We’ll mention only four such emotions, to give you an idea of what we mean.

A friend of ours, Dr. Charles Clements, is a former Air Force pilot and Vietnam veteran who years ago spent time treating peasants in El Salvador. He wrote of a family he tried to help whose son and daughter had died of fever and diarrhea. “Both had been lost,” he writes, “in the years when Camila and her husband had chosen to pay their mortgage, a sum equal to half the value of their crop, rather than keep the money to feed their children. Each year, the choice was always the same. If they paid, their children’s lives were endangered. If they didn’t, their land could be repossessed.”

Being hungry thus means anguish. The anguish of impossible choices. But it is more. . . .

In Nicaragua some years ago, we met Amanda Espinoza, a poor rural woman who, under the long dictatorship of the Somoza dynasty, had never had enough to feed her family. She told us that she had endured six stillbirths and watched five of her children die before the age of one.

To Amanda, being hungry means watching people you love die. It is grief.

Throughout the world, the poor are made to blame themselves for their poverty. The day we walked into a home in the Philippine countryside, the first words we heard were an apology for the poverty of the dwelling. Being hungry also means living in humiliation.

Anguish, grief, and humiliation are a part of what hunger means. But increasingly throughout the world, hunger has a fourth dimension.

More recently in Brazil, we spent time with a peasant organization known as the Landless Workers Movement. Since the 1980s, its members have struggled to achieve fair access to farmland to feed their families, for in Brazil a tiny minority controls most of the agricultural land—much gained illegally—while using little of it.

Sitting in a countryside meeting room, we were captivated by the enthusiasm of a Catholic nun explaining key details of the movement’s upcoming national assembly. Suddenly, a young man on crutches, his foot bandaged, hobbled through the door. Everyone immediately burst into emotional cheers of support. “What was this about?” we wondered. At break we learned: the man had been seriously wounded in an attack by landowners on the camp where he and his family waited for legal land title. Later we were told that, since the movement’s founding, 1,500 members have been killed by landowners and corrupt law enforcement officers who’ve felt threatened by the demand for fair access to land by poor, landless people.

Often, then, a fourth dimension of hunger is fear.

Anguish, grief, humiliation, and fear. What if we refused merely to count the hungry and instead tried also to understand hunger in terms of such universal emotions?

How we understand hunger determines what we think its solutions are. If we think of hunger only as numbers—numbers of people with too few calories—the solution also appears to us in numbers: numbers of tons of food aid, or numbers of dollars in economic assistance. But once we begin to understand hunger as real people coping with the most painful of human emotions, we can perceive its roots. We need only ask: When have we experienced any of these emotions ourselves? Hasn’t it been when we have felt out of control of our lives—powerless to protect ourselves and those we love?

Hunger has thus become for us the ultimate symbol of powerlessness.

Appreciating that hunger tells us a person has been robbed of the most basic power—the power to protect ourselves and those we love—is a first step. Peeling back the layers of misunderstanding, we must then ask: If powerlessness lies at the very root of hunger, what are hunger’s causes?

Certainly, it is not scarcity. The world is awash with food. Neither can we blame hunger on natural disasters or climate change. Put most simply, the root cause of hunger isn’t a scarcity of food; it’s a scarcity of democracy.

Wait a minute! What does democracy have to do with hunger? Well, in our view—everything. Democracy carries within it the principle of accountability. Democratic forums and structures are those in which people have a say in decisions that most affect their well-being. Leadership is kept accountable to the needs of the broad public.

Antidemocratic structures, by contrast, are those in which power is so tightly concentrated that the majority of people are left with no say at all. Leaders are accountable only to the powerful minority.

In the United States, we think of democracy as a strictly political concept. We grow up absorbing the notion that political democracy enables us as citizens to protect certain rights—to vote, to have our civil liberties upheld, and to enjoy fair access to opportunities for safe, satisfying lives. We take pride in knowing that we’ve achieved voting rights and the rule of law—however imperfect—when many societies haven’t.

As we probe the roots of world hunger, we learn that for genuine democracy to thrive, or even survive, its practice must evolve toward what we call “Living Democracy.” By this we mean democracy practiced as much more than a particular political structure. After all, numerous countries have all the trappings of democracy—constitutions, multiple parties, voting—yet so many of their citizens endure great deprivation. Think of India, Kenya, or Guatemala.

The heart and soul of democracy is about voice—who has it and who doesn’t. Thus, Living Democracy is a way of life in which everyone has a voice as the principles of inclusion, mutual accountability, and fairness expand to economic and social relationships. They include, for example, access to land, food, jobs, and income.

In the United States, this step would mean picking up the torch handed to us more than 70 years ago by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his call for a Second Bill of Rights. Perhaps there is no more basic right than the right to nutritious food.

Indeed, only as we deepen our concept of democracy to include true accountability to those most affected by decisions—in economic as well as political arenas of life—can people transcend the anguish, grief, humiliation, and fear arising from powerlessness.

We hope that in so doing, we will realize the many ways each of us can contribute to the end of hunger.

Frances Moore Lappé is the author of 18 books, including the three-million copy Diet for a Small Planet, and most recently, World Hunger: 10 Myths coauthored with Joseph Collins. She is cofounder of three national organizations, including Food First: the Institute for Food and Development Policy, and the Small Planet Institute. Gourmet Magazine chose her among 25 people whose work has changed the way America eats. SmallPlanet.org

Joseph Collins, PhD, has spent five decades researching and writing about issues in international development. In 1975, he cofounded Food First with Lappé. He is a consultant in Africa, Latin America, and Asia to UN agencies, USAID contractors, and international nongovernmental organizations.

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Join our once-monthly newsletter to get all the latest news & resources

No spam. Unsubscribe any time.