Why Are People Hungry?

Why Are People Hungry?

This is not an issue most of us enjoy thinking about. It depresses us. It confuses us. It often paralyzes even the most caring of us with its immense proportions. Some who call themselves Christian deny its existence; others explain away any sense of responsibility for it. And yet it cries out to us from every side; it catches us off guard and pierces out hearts. It is the problem of hunger in our world, and each of us who would call herself a follower of Christ must recognize it and respond to it.

Why is there such a problem in our world? Why do people go hungry? The answers to that question are extremely complex. Different levels and different kinds of hunger exist.

People Who Don’t Have Enough Food

The most compelling kind of hunger is literal starvation. This is what has swept across countries like Ethiopia, Somalia, India and Bangladesh many times in the past 40 years. In countries like Haiti, food security has been a problem for more than a hundred years. In many developing countries and some industrialized countries—including the United States—physical undernourishment is a significant problem. While this is not as shocking as reports of literal starvation, it is more widespread.

Thirty years ago, relief and development agencies reported that 38 million people died every day from hunger-related causes. People in these situations are not necessarily without some food resources, but the nutritional content is incomplete. They develop diseases as a result of missing nutrients. Many of them die, and three quarters of those are children under five.

This number has gone down over the decades, with several setbacks (the recent famines in South Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria and Yemen are a good example of setbacks) but the number of food-insecure people in the world remains at 795 million.

Why is there not enough of the right kind of food for hundreds of millions of people? Is it because of ignorance? Yes, sometimes. Is it because of religious systems that allow such deprivation? Yes, and sometimes it is a religious system that calls itself Christian, or a political system that calls itself free, that stands by, or even stands in the way, while people starve.

We often hear people say, “They need to just stop having babies.” Although this sentiment was widely accepted about 30 years ago as a major issue in solving the problem of hunger, the reports from the field have not borne it out. Most scientists and researchers say that overpopulation is not the cause of hunger—that there is enough food in the world to feed all of the people who live here.

Also, aid and development workers report that, when the standard of living goes up, the number of children goes down. In many cases, couples choose to have a large number of children to increase the probability of having children who live long enough to become adults.

The problem, instead, lies in waste, overconsumption and extremely uneven distribution. A very small portion of the world’s population consumes a very large portion of its food, leaving little for the rest and making it difficult for them to find access to it. How does this happen?

It happens when countries find themselves in a food crisis (caused by drought, blights on crops, and other natural disasters, as well as the ravages of war), and they are unable to take advantage of the surplus resources of other countries. Sometimes food is not shared simply because the nations in question have differing ideologies. Sometimes the government of the stricken country focuses all its attention and resources on military purposes and refuses to address the issue of hunger. Sometimes the people in power hoard all of the resources for themselves. Sometimes there are blockades that cut off food supplies. In some stricken areas, roads do not exist.

Often technology that increases food production aids only the ones who can afford the new seed or equipment necessary. Some companies have exploited the people in developing countries by gathering seeds and ceasing the right to use them—or by genetically engineering plants that don’t reproduce themselves.

Hunger experts have learned from experience that government-sponsored aid efforts often have less success in reaching the hungry populations than efforts from private sources. And there are many churches and charities that work endlessly to do that. However, in spite of continuing efforts like these, where thousands—perhaps millions—of lives have been saved, the specter of hunger persists.

At one time, when word went out from aid workers that a famine was looming, people in Western countries took notice and responded. When there is a natural disaster, especially within Western countries, people step up to the plate. But sometimes those disasters don’t get reported. Sometimes they are too far away, in a place we couldn’t even find on a map. Sometimes media attention is focused elsewhere.

And sometimes people find it hard to sustain a level of attention on difficult, emotional problems like hunger. The true test of compassion, and, in my opinion, the true test of our souls, lies in whether we can keep on caring.

So, while people in resource-rich countries avert their eyes, people continue to go hungry all over the world. From the drought-stricken Horn of Africa, to the cities of Venezuela and Bangladesh, to the elementary schools of the United States, people experience hunger and the fear of hunger. All of this happens while industrialized countries throw away tons of edible food.

Why do we let this happen? Perhaps it is partly because we feel that the politics of hunger are too enmeshed in complexities for us to confront such an issue. Perhaps it is because we feel that, even if we are successful in aid efforts, it will be small victories against a massive problem. The more we study the realities of hunger around the world and in our own communities, the more we know that governments and religious-political systems can and often do stand in the way of feeding the hungry. When we realize this, it is tempting to throw up out hands in despair.

Another Kind of Hunger

Physical hunger is not the only kind of deprivatioon that people endure. Along with the realities of physical ordeals, people often are starved for hope and dignity. People who watch their children die from hunger-related diseases endure more than physical distress. People who barely scrape by, in a society where conspicuous consumption seems to be the ultimate dream, suffer more that physical misery. These people need emotional comfort, the healing that comes from a glimpse of the beauty and goodness in the world. They need spiritual as well as biological nurturing.

Part of this healing comes when hungry, hopeless people see that someone else cares about them, about their physical survival or their general welfare. Once people are rescued from the throes of physical death, they can begin to respond with hope.

Spiritual hunger, however, is not limited to deprived people. In fact, it seems to thrive much of the time within materialistic societies. Disillusionment is widespread in Western society, where some have so many comforts, so much opulence. Many hunger for meaningful occupation, for simple joy. Successful people find themselves puzzled; they expected these lavish trappings to make them happy, but they are left instead with a void that they do not understand.

It is ironic, perhaps, but fitting, that one of the best ways to fill the void of meaningless materialism is to share with the ones who are hungry physically. They, in turn, always have something of their own to share. People on the margins often possess special resources for dealing with devastating losses.

While they hunger for the food that the wealthy possess, the wealthy hunger for the inner strength that impoverished people often exhibit.

What Am I Supposed to Do about This?

For the true follower of Christ, feeding the hungry is not an optional activity. Jesus did not divide the sheep and goats in Matthew 25 according to how they responded to doctrinal statements. He divided them according to how they responded to human need.

Perhaps the most important issue of our lives is whether or not we remember to see the face of Christ in that of the hungry child in the refugee camp in South Sudan, the dying man in the slums of Mumbai, or the elderly woman muttering to herself on the curb in New York City.

There are many ways to respond in love to the hungry in our world—through national lobby organizations, international feeding programs, denominational hunger funds, local gleaning projects, food banks and soup kitchens. Supporting these programs, volunteering in the food pantry, coming face-to-face with a person in need. The best way to respond to the reality of hunger is to find that place that fits your talents and resources, and give yourself to it. There is no greater joy—none in the world.

—Katie Cook