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Worldwide, the number of hungry people has dropped significantly over the past two decades, but 795 million people continue to struggle with hunger every day.
Many factors contribute to the state of hunger both in the United States and abroad. The reasons are complex and varied, and often interconnected.
Poverty is the main cause of hunger in the world. This is true in rich and poor countries alike. It is true no matter whether people live in urban or rural areas. Most people who are hungry are living in extreme poverty, defined as income of $1.25 per day or less. The largest group of people in the world in extreme poverty are smallholder farmers in developing countries. They do not have the land to grow enough food to supply themselves with enough to eat year round, and they earn so little income from what they sell that they cannot afford to purchase food from other sources once their own supply runs out.
In the United States and other high-income countries, hunger is mainly caused by poverty that results from a lack of jobs or because jobs pay too little. Hunger rates rise when the national or local economy is in a slump. People lose jobs and cannot find work. Once the economy improves some people continue to struggle to find work. For example, people who have been in prison face wide-scale discrimination that makes it difficult for them to find jobs once they reenter their community. In single-parent families, the parent may not be able to take a job or work enough hours because of no childcare options.
Food shortages in developing countries are common. The people most affected are smallholder farmers and their families who depend on their own surplus to survive between harvests. The period leading up to a harvest is known as the “hungry season.” Food from the previous harvest runs out and families cut back on meals. This period of time may last for months depending on the size of the previous harvest. Similarly, in the U.S., families with very low incomes run out of money at the end of the month. Families cut back on how much they eat and then eventually skip meals altogether on some days. Another reason for food shortages is up to 40 percent of food grown in some countries is spoilage. Smallholder farmers do not have adequate storage facilities to protect their supplies against pests and weather.
Poor infrastructure causes hunger by making it difficult — sometimes impossible — to transport food to areas of a country where there are shortages. People have died of hunger in one region of a country while there was plenty of food in another region. The roads were so poor it was not possible to reach all who needed the food to survive. Crops need water to grow. Irrigation infrastructure is unaffordable to most farmers in developing countries. A lack of water and sanitation infrastructure are leading causes of hunger and malnutrition. Women and girls in developing countries spend hours each day fetching water because of a lack of infrastructure, pulling women away from other productive activities and girls out of school.
People who live on $1.25 per day spend most of their income on food. Under stable conditions they can scarcely afford enough food to protect themselves and family members against hunger. Any fluctuation that pushes food prices up creates additional hardship. Basic grains such as wheat, rice, and corn make up the largest share of calories among people in developing countries who are hungry. In 2009, prices of these grains spiked and hunger surged for a short time by an additional 50 to 100 million people. Parents tend to cut back their portions during relatively brief periods of instability. Over a prolonged time they may have to pull children out of school to earn income to pay for food.
Despite having contributed little to cause climate change, the poorest developing countries are already experiencing the effects. Climate change is damaging food and water security in significant ways. This is the greatest environmental challenge the world has ever faced. Our success in meeting that challenge will determine whether the end of hunger remains in our sights. Feeding everyone on earth would be challenging enough without climate change. The global population is expected to swell to more than 9 billion by the end of the century. With only slight increases expected in available farmland, agricultural production must increase by 70 percent to keep pace with population growth.
Hunger is both a cause and effect of war and conflict. Wide-scale poverty and hunger lead to frustration and resentment with governments that appear to ignore hungry people’s plight. The poorest members of society suffer the worst during war and conflict. Homes are destroyed and communities of people are displaced. Peace when it comes is often tenuous. The physical infrastructure needed for reconstruction is damaged and might even be destroyed. After years of civil war in Liberia, one man said he knew that peace was taking hold as he noticed the return of farm animals on people’s land. During the war, rebels and soldiers had seized the animals for food, leaving their victims to starve.
All people who are hungry are malnourished. They are not getting enough protein, so they lose weight and in severe cases their bodies begin wasting. Another form of malnutrition is known as “hidden hunger,” and it has more to do with the quality of food than the quantity. All people require certain nutrients to lead a healthy life, and when they don’t consume sufficient amounts, they can become sick and even die. Infants and young children (especially during the 1,000-day window between pregnancy and age 2) are most vulnerable to the harmful effects of hidden hunger. This form of malnutrition has stunted 1 in 4 children in the developing world. They will suffer lifelong effects from earlier onset of chronic diseases to difficulties learning in school to lower earning potential as adults.
Progress against hunger and poverty seldom happens without economic growth in countries, but economic growth alone does not ensure that prosperity is broadly shared. Every country, regardless of its wealth, has discrimination woven into its social fabric. Disadvantaged groups tend to be left the furthest behind. In most countries, these are racial, ethnic, or religious minorities. Among all of these groups, women and girls are more disadvantaged than their male counterparts. Discrimination is why women farmers in developing countries labor with fewer productive resources than their male counterparts, why women in all sectors of the economy earn less than men, and why girls are pulled out of school to work or to marry.
"I was hungry and you gave me food."
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