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What is Hunger?

July 17, 2017
by Russ Long


Thanks to FOOD FIRST for permission to reprint this article which was originally found in the January/February, 1987 edition of the La Montanita Food Co-op Newsletter in Albuquerque, New Mexico.   Later this article was reprinted in the Paso Del Norte Food Co-op's May, 1987 newsletter in El Paso, Texas.

The material presented below is intended to complement the discussion concerning problems with science. It's not meant as a critique of those who use quantitative methods. Rather, "What is Hunger" is included to highlight the idea that the research method chosen has significant impact on the type of questions one might ask as well as the conclusions one might draw.

Despite a year of heightened attention to famine in Africa and huge amounts of donated food, millions of people on that continent are still starving. This is hunger in its acute form, but there is another form. It is less visible. It is the chronic, day-in, day-out hunger afflicting as many as 800-million people. While chronic hunger rarely makes headlines, it is just as deadly. Each year it kills as many as 18-million people--more than twice as many as died annually during World War II.

These statistics are staggering. They shock and alarm, however, several years ago I began to doubt the usefulness of such numbers. Numbers can numb, distancing us from what is actually very close to us.

So I ask myself--what really is hunger?

Is it the gnawing pain in the stomach when we try to stay on that new diet? Is it the physical depletion that comes with chronic undernutrition?

Yes, but it is more. I 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, I ask myself, would it mean to think of hunger in terms of universal human feelings, feelings that each one of us have experienced at some time in our lives? I will mention only three such emotions to give you an idea of what I mean.

To begin with, being hungry means making choices that no human being should have to make. In Guatemala, many poor Indian families send a son to join the army. They know that this same army is responsible for killing tens of thousands of civilians, mostly the Indians themselves. But the $25 a month the army pays each soldier's family--half the total income of a typical poor family in Guatemala--may be the only means the family has to feed their other children.

Dr. Charles Clements is a former Air Force Pilot and Vietnam veteran who, as a medical doctor, spent a year treating peasants in El Salvador. In his book, Witness to War, he describes a family whose son and daughter had died from 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 childrens' lives were endangered. If they didn't, their land could be repossessed."

Thus, being hungry means anguish, the anguish of making impossible choices. But it is more.

In the United States and throughout the world, the poor are made to blame themselves for their poverty. Walking into a home in the rural Philippines, the first words I heard were an apology for the poverty of the dwelling.   Today, millions of Americans who once proudly claimed they would not accept welfare are dependent on soup kitchens to feed their families.

Being hungry means living in humiliation.

Anguish and humiliation are a part of what hunger means, but increasingly throughout the world, hunger has a third dimension. In Guatemala, in 1978, I met two highland peasants. With the help of a U.S. based voluntary aid group, they were teaching other poor peasants to make "contour ditches," reducing the erosion on the steep slopes to which they had been pushed by wealthy land-owners in the valley. Two years later, the friend who had introduced us visited our institute in San Francisco. I learned that one of the peasants I had met had been killed and the other had been forced to go underground. Their crime was teaching their neighbors better farming techniques.  Any change that might make the poor less dependent on low-paying jobs on plantations threatens Guatemala's oligarchy.

Increasingly, then, the third dimension of hunger is fear.

What if we were to refuse simply to count the hungry? What if instead we tried to understand hunger as three universal emotions: anguish, humiliation, and fear? We would discover that how we understand hunger determines what we think are its solutions.

If we think of hunger 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 understand hunger as real families coping with the most painful of human emotions, we can perceive hunger's roots in powerlessness. We need only ask ourselves: when we have experienced any of these emotions ourselves, hasn't it been when we felt out of control of our lives? Powerless to protect ourselves and those we love?

Truly, then hunger is the ultimate symbol of powerlessness.

With this insight, our responsibility to the hungry becomes clear. Food giveaways can fill bellies but they can never end hunger. For unlike food, one cannot give people power over their lives. What we can do, however, is make sure that we do not further undercut the hungry by blocking their efforts at change. Instead of asking ourselves how many tons of food or how many dollars in aid poor people need, we must ask ourselves: Are the policies of our government and multinational corporations shoring up the political and economic power of a few, making the powerlessness of the many inevitable?

Statistics will not provide the answer to such a question. Only identifying with needless human suffering will.