How long do you have to go without food to be hungry? Do you have to miss a meal regularly to say that you are facing hunger? How frequently does that have to be? Once a week or month? How about once a year? Is hunger a mental state where you are hungry even when you have access to food? Is it hunger if someone is not skipping any meals, but only able to afford poor quality unhealthy meals? Daily undernourishment is not easily visible, but that is the reality for many, and when it goes on for an extended period of time, it does significantly influence one’s health. Is that hunger?
When we say that we address hunger, everyone has some idea of what hunger means. However, when we get into the details, individual views often diverge. It may sound like a technical or academic question. A child knows when she is hungry. She doesn’t need to have a definition from an expert. That said, how we define hunger influences the data we collect in surveys, and the policies we enact, which in turn affects the health of millions of people in this country and elsewhere.
One way to define hunger is based on the daily caloric intake. According to United Nation’s World Food Program (WFP): “The energy and protein that people need varies according to age, sex, body size, physical activity and, to some extent, climate. On average, the body needs more than 2,100 kilocalories per day per person to allow a normal, healthy life.” That definition doesn’t, however, address undernutrition. It’s not hard to eat cheap high-calorie food that will easily meet or exceed the 2,100 kilocalories requirement, but will fail to provide adequate nutrients necessary to live a healthy life.
United Stated Department of Agriculture (USDA) does not directly specify what constitutes hunger, but defines food insecurity that may lead to hunger. This measurement is much more subjective. For example, a family is considered to have low food security if they report “reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet”, but “little or no indication of reduced food intake” at times during the year. Based on this, USDA defines huger as: “physiological condition for an individual that may result from food insecurity; a potential consequence of food insecurity that, because of prolonged, involuntary lack of food, results in discomfort, illness, weakness, or pain that goes beyond the usual uneasy sensation”. One thing to keep in mind is that USDA’s food insecurity data is a household statistics, which means that it doesn’t capture differences in food intake within a family. For example a mom may not get proper nutrition, so that she can provide better meals for her children, but the household data may not reflect that.
At the global level, when we think of hunger in a developing nation, we often think of starvation or chronic hunger, where people do not have access to even minimal food for days at a stretch. When we are speaking with immigrants or refugees from another country, especially from developing countries, we have to understand how they think of hunger. They may perceive and answer USDA’s food insecurity question in a very different way than someone who was born in this country.
At the end, whether in this country, or another, hunger is preventable. We have enough food to feed everyone. Especially for the wealthiest nation on earth, there is absolutely no reason why it can’t feed all its people. Hunger can be many things, but it is not a shortage of food. At least, not yet. We can nitpick on who is hungry and who deserves our support. Or, we can create a system that focuses on reduced food waste, increased access, and affordability of healthy food options for everyone. The choice is ours.