Counting the Hungry

It’s Thanksgiving here in the United States, and it’s a very good time to be contrarian, and remember those who have little to be thankful for.

Last week, we heard that there were 49 million Americans going hungry, and a billion people around the world. The numbers are true, but it’s worth getting a little wonky to understand what they mean because there are literally hundreds of ways to count the hungry. If we used the US methods, hundreds of millions more people would be considered hungry around the world. If we used the UN methods, almost no-one would hunger in America.

In the US, the USDA draws its data from surveys that measure household food security, defined as the condition that obtains when a household has “access by all people at all times to enough food for an active,
healthy life.”

This is a technical definition, but as with all policy-related definitions, it has a long political history. While more explicitly political definitions like food sovereignty are helpful in understand why people go hungry, food security is helpful in understanding what it is to be hungry.

On their questionnaires, the USDA asks a panel of 10 questions (or 18 questions if there are children in the household) about, for instance, whether in the past 12 months “We worried whether our food would run out before we got money to buy more.” Questions like these try to grasp what we mean by hunger, by asking not about that gnawing feeling in the pit of the stomach shared by the hungry and crash-dieters alike, but about the absence of access to that food in order to live healthily.

Particularly in the United States, the feeling of anxiety around where the next meal comes from is one of the largest hidden costs of hunger. In asking people directly about their access to food, ‘food security’ is a helpful metric of the indignity, worry, and desperation that hunger causes.

But food security a broad definition, with little nuance. In the US, if the number of responses to the questionnaire indicating food insecurity are above six (or eight if the household has children), it’s possible to be categorized as having ‘very low food security’. But people on the brink of death in rural India will fit this category just as much as the millions of severely hungry but far-from-death people in the United States.

So it’s useful to have other ways of measuring the depth hunger. Counting the number of calories that individuals get to eat every day is how the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) measures hunger in the world. They count how many people eat less than 1900 calories a day, and their index of hunger is ‘undernourishment’. According to their most recent estimates, 1.02 billion people will be undernourished in 2009. Overwhelmingly these people were in poor countries (just over 15 million people were undernourished in rich countries from 2004-6 – if the global measure of hunger was ‘food insecurity’, the number of hungry would be substantially higher).

The data used to calculate undernourishment helps to compass the depth of hunger, the degree to which people are going seriously without calories every day. By counting the average calorie intake of people who are already undernourished, you can get a sense of how badly off the hungry are. When their average intake is 300 calories below the minimum daily intake of 1900, they’re considered intensely food deprived. The countries with deepest levels of hunger are Haiti, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Belize, where a hungry person has an average daily calorie intake of 430 calories below the minimum acceptable.

If your inner wonk is hot for more, Sara R. Millman and Laurie F. DeRose have a very readable and free book at the United Nations University entitled
Who’s Hungry? And How Do We Know?.

And once you’ve mastered that, you’ll be ready to play with the data at the Food and Agriculture Organization’s website.

And all of this for us to understand the many ways in which there are far far too many hungry people.

2 Replies to “Counting the Hungry”

  1. I didn’t have any idea that there were people in America having difficulties getting enough food. All too often we think of them as being greedy and fat.

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