What Does Hunger Look Like?

Rachel Khong | Lucky Peach | Apr 7, 2015

We know too little about hunger, and want to fix that. Raj Patel is the guy we chose to school us. He co-teaches (with Michael Pollan) the Edible Education course at the University of California, Berkeley, and his first book, Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System, is an intriguing investigation into our modern conundrum: while there is more hunger in the world than ever before, there is also more obesity. Patel shines light onto our broken global food network, and considers what it might take to change it.

What does hunger look like?

The standard image of hunger that most of us carry around comes from 1980s TV and magazines, which is to say that it’s an image from the nineteenth century. We think about African kids with flies in their eyes. The everyday reiteration of this image comes in the form of a line that parents take with their children on almost every continent: “Eat up, there are children starving in Africa!” Setting aside the problem of logic there—How does eating my broccoli help starving children?—a better question arises: What do parents in Africa tell their children?

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In South Africa they say, “Eat up, there are children starving in India.” They’re right. There are more children starving in India than in all of sub-Saharan Africa. India is the country with the largest number of hungry people. It’s surprising because what you usually hear of India is that it’s where all the jobs have gone, and where Microsoft and Google are setting up shop. But the people who are really struggling with hunger in any country are the people who are being paid the least, the people you don’t usually hear about. That often means people working in the food system. Hunger looks like the hands that grow and pick and serve your food, and wash up afterward.

Hunger looks gendered, and it’s certainly race-related—in the United States as much as anywhere else.

Hunger looks gendered, and it’s certainly race-related—in the United States as much as anywhere else. In America, people of color are disproportionately likely to be affected by food insecurity, and the group most likely to be affected—35 percent of them—are female-headed households. If you look at who’s going hungry, it’s women more than men. Sixty percent of people going hungry in the world are women or girls. When you think about who has power in the world—who has the money—this shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Hunger also doesn’t necessarily look like bloat or stick-thin limbs. The most profound effect of malnutrition is what might have been. Children who are malnourished don’t follow the growth curve of children who are well fed. They look much younger; they are much shorter; their IQs tend to be impaired. And they will never reach their full potential if, during the first part of their lives, they’re not given enough. Often you have malnutrition on top of other diseases, like diarrhea. When children die of diarrhea, it’s the diarrhea that kills them, but it’s the malnutrition that’s the trigger. It makes them much more susceptible to disease, and much less able to fight it once they get it.

This sort of hunger is hard to see, because you can’t see a terrible counterfactual: the theft of potential.

What’s the story of hunger in the world today?

We produce more calories per person than ever before in human history. A common misperception is that the reason people go hungry is a shortage of food, but there’s actually enough food in the world to feed everyone. The problem is one of distribution.

Pick up the Bible and you’ll read about seven fat years and seven lean years. People understood there were natural fluctuations of good times and bad. Most civilizations have figured out ways of smoothing that out. India, before the British came, was a feudal society with landlords who had a moral responsibility to feed the hungry. If you were poor in India, it was a shitty gig and you had a landlord who was the ultimate ruler. The only silver lining on this dark cloud was that when there was a famine, when there were pests, the landlord had a responsibility to feed the peasants.

When the British came, they said, “Landlords, you don’t need to be doing that. You need to have efficient markets; you need to be buying and selling labor. We will buy your wheat, Indian landlords, and we will pay you top dollar for them! It’ll be amazing!” And the Indian landlords said, “No, no, no, we’re fine!” And the British said, “No, no, no, we have guns!” That’s an abbreviated history of colonialism, but it gets to the important bit. The British were right. Because of the shift in the economy away from the landlord-responsibility system to the free market, Indian landlords produced more grain than ever. India was exporting millions of tons of grain at the end of the nineteenth century. The downside is that because workers were being paid very little, they couldn’t afford the grain; they were being priced out of the market. You had a paradox uncovered by the great writer Mike Davis: in the 2,000 years before the British, there was a famine once every 120 years. If you saw a famine, you were unlucky; you’d have to wait more than a century to see the next famine. After the British came, after more grain was being produced than ever before, there was a famine once every four years.

There is plenty of food around, but the way we mediate access to that food today is through the market. That’s why even though we have more food than ever before, around a billion people go hungry.

The Nobel laureate Amartya Sen wrote a book called Poverty and Famines, studying the Bengal famine of 1940s India. What he observed was that roughly four million people died, not because there was a shortage of rice, but because the people who could afford rice were hoarding it. This is a story that still matters; its mechanisms were partly behind the big food-price increases a few years ago.

Here’s what Sen said: Imagine you have a warehouse full of rice, and you see people outside your door hungry for rice. You could sell it to them today for a dollar a pound. Or you could hang on to it and see what they’re ready to pay tomorrow. Chances are they’d be ready to pay more. By that logic, you could hoard the grain and speculate. That’s what happened in the Bengal famine. There was rice in the area but hoarders hoarded, and the people who died were too poor to afford the market price. And that blew a hole in a lot of thinking about hunger and famine. What Sen said was that in every major famine since the Second World War there’s been enough food in the area. The reason people starve is that they’re too poor to be able to afford it.

That’s the story of modern hunger. There is plenty of food around, but the way we mediate access to that food today is through the market. That’s why even though we have more food than ever before, around a billion people go hungry. The story of hunger has always been the story of the desire of powerful people to be able to manage hunger, rather than sharing our abundance more fairly.

So it’s not about what Thomas Malthus was worried about: too many people and not enough food?

That idea sits in the back of a lot of people’s minds, and it’s important to dispel. Policymakers in the United States have been thinking Malthusian thoughts. They’ve been concerned that there will be this horrible moment where food supply gets outstripped by population and everyone riots in the streets, driven by rage and hunger and the need to feed seething broods of children.

But the facts don’t bear this out. Think, for example, of protests in 1917, when there were huge food riots throughout America. It was not because there was a shortage of food, but because the price of food had gone up and politicians weren’t doing anything about it. At the front lines of these protests were women. There was no way for women to articulate their demands to the politicians—they didn’t have the vote yet. The way women got the vote in the United States was food riots. They demanded lower food prices and a place at the political table.

Worldwide, recent protests about food haven’t been because all of a sudden the food supply has run out. It’s always been about a failure of entitlement—people not being able to get the food, and being excluded from the political system.

Worldwide, recent big protests about food haven’t been because poor people have been shagging and breeding and creating more hungry mouths and all of a sudden the food supply has run out. It’s always been about a failure of entitlement—people not being able to get the food, and being excluded from the political system they relied on to keep hunger at bay. That’s why people take to the streets. Every food protest you can think of—whether it’s a protest for bread in France in the 1700s that became the French Revolution, or a protest around merchants being able to buy and sell tea in North America’s eastern colonies that became the Boston Tea Party, or a protest over wheat prices that became the Arab Spring—all these appear, superficially, like they’re about the Malthusian tipping point. But they’ve never been about that. Not in one case. Food was available. It’s just that poor people couldn’t afford it.

What does hunger look like in America today?

In the United States, there are fifty million people who are food-insecure: at some point in the year, they don’t know where their next meal is coming from. The system that we have in America at the moment is not great. It’s about getting commodity crops to the hungry, and one of the problems with that is that it just extends the domain of bad, cheap food.

Growing corn in the United States mainly for animal feed and for fuel seems to me a very bad use of some great land. We’re growing food now to turn it into ethanol to power our cars. There is something morally wrong about using the fruits of the soil not to eat, but to set on fire.

Ethanol is one of the main reasons we had the food-price spike in 2007 and 2008, because of this shift away from food for people to food for animals and cars. This is a structural problem with the way that capitalism works. The kind of capitalism I find problematic is not the free exchange of goods and services between people—I think that’s awesome. I think markets are terrific. What I find problematic is the concentrating of market power. Think of any major agricultural commodity: there are five or six corporations that control the global market. That doesn’t seem like the markets are working efficiently. That’s a few companies writing manifestos about what all of us get to eat, and legislating how low our wages are going to be so that we’ve no real choice about what’s on our plates. So what does hunger look like in America? It’s profitable, widespread, and a national shame. Yet it is possible to imagine an America without hunger.

What do you picture that America looking like?

First, we need everyone to be able to afford good food. In order to make that happen, we need to end poverty. If we’re going to address the issue of hunger in America, or hunger around the world, we need to raise wages for more people, so that the craft of growing, the crafts of cooking and preparing, are all rewarded as they deserve to be. The way things work now, cheap food is the corollary of low wages. In America, we have a food system that’s geared to produce all you can eat. But when you have a food system that’s geared to produce foods that are rich in salt, fat, and sugar, and when you have very limited entitlements, you need to be rich to be able to afford to eat well in the United States.

There are now a couple of studies that show that if you’re on a limited income, no matter how much free time you have to scratch-cook—and of course poor people have very little free time—you can’t afford the ingredients to have a healthy, balanced diet.  The food-provisioning system that we have in the United States consigns poor people to higher rates of type-2 diabetes and heart disease. These used to be called diseases of affluence, but they’re now not about affluence at all—they’re diseases of poverty.

We need living wages for everyone in America… It means that we pay more taxes—in particular, rich people pay more taxes. It means we treat everyone with dignity; we treat all work with dignity.

We need living wages for everyone in America, and it’s an easy thing to say and an easy thing to imagine. It means that we pay more taxes—in particular, rich people pay more taxes. It means we treat everyone with dignity; we treat all work with dignity. That’s an important shift. Particularly low-income workers—for instance, the kind of work that happens in homes across the nations where people are looking after other people—that’s vital work. Society needs to recognize the value of that work so people can afford to eat.

Beyond that, there is a looming supply problem as well. Not enough people are dreaming about the world as it will be, particularly when it comes to climate change. This is a collective failure of the imagination. If we’re thinking about how to feed the world in the twenty-first century, we need to get away from an agriculture that contributes to climate change. The kind of agriculture that depends on unlimited amounts of water and unlimited amounts of fertilizer is not okay in the twenty-first century. We don’t have the water, and when catastrophe happens, there’s no recovering from it. We need agriculture that requires less water, and doesn’t need fertilizers that are dependent on fossil fuels. We need agriculture that provides a portfolio of crops, guaranteeing a crop no matter how unusual or extreme the weather. There is that kind of agriculture in the world today. It doesn’t produce crap; it produces nutritious food.

People have a hard time believing that small farmers can feed the world. Yet there’s what’s called an inverse relationship: the larger a farm is, the lower its yield per hectare. Small farms produce more on the same patch of land than bigger farms, because big farms don’t bother about creating a dense, rich ecosystem of crops. Big farms only work if you’ve got large machines that work with a monoculture—row upon row, mile on mile, of a single crop. Smaller farms can pack in a greater diversity of crops because while large farms have combines, smaller farms have farmers—skilled workers who put footprints, not tire tracks, between the crops, and tend them better. The extra care that comes from extra labor grows extra crops on the same amount of land. If you’re interested in producing more food in the future, then you probably want more small farms. And if you’re interested in climate-change-ready farming, then you probably want farms growing a portfolio of crops, not a monoculture. All of this is possible, but it does mean breaking out of the chains of the imagination that we’re currently in—believing the only way to farm in the Midwest is by using satellite-controlled tractors.

Solving this problem involves political organizing. You may wince, especially since politics has such a bad name these days. But everything that has been worth a damn in American history has involved political organizing. Social change is about dreaming much bigger than politicians allow, and many of us have forgotten how to do that. Not everywhere, though. It’s helpful to look elsewhere around the world—I’m working on a film that’s found amazing stories from India to Peru to Malawi—and even to U.S. history, as a reminder that people can and have imagined eating better, systemically.

For instance, one of the reasons we have a federal school-breakfast program is because there was a terrific group in the Bay Area in the 1960s and early 1970s that decided that it was a tragedy that poor kids were going hungry, and unilaterally started to feed them because the government wasn’t doing anything. At one point, this group was feeding more kids than the state of California. The group was the Black Panthers. What the Black Panthers were doing was not merely feeding people like a church—they were feeding people like they wanted to end hunger. The government felt so threatened that they were shamed into funding the federal school-breakfast program. The Panthers were smashed for their trouble, and their history revised. But no matter what you think of the Black Panthers, it’s clear that they had a vision for big, systemic change. They didn’t want to add vitamins to bad food—they even warned people away from processed food, especially sugar, at a time when it seemed ludicrous to do that. They wanted good food for everyone. That’s not an unreasonable dream to have.

What can we do to make that a reality today?

It’s going to take both some creation and some destruction. It’s hard to build a good food movement against the marketing power of large corporations. Curtailing their ability to market to kids, to fund our schools and sporting events—McDonald’s at the Olympics, really?—is a reasonable way to give space to a generation of children who know and love good food. It’s political, and it’s a way of creating more freedom.

More and more, people are on board with the idea that in order to have more freedom for people, we need less freedom for Big Food.

But more and more, people are on board with the idea that in order to have more freedom for people, we need less freedom for Big Food. Food-movement politics is already beyond “vote with your fork.” Of course voting with your fork is important. Ten years ago, no one thought to shop discriminately, but now people know to, and that really pleases me. Beyond that, the next thing to think about is sustainability: not just environmental sustainability, but also sustainable labor practices.

We need to think about the work of people who are cooking the food and also the work that makes it possible for some people to cook the food and other people to take care of the kids. It’s more than just raising minimum wage. We need something more aggressive. When you’ve got obligations, ten bucks an hour is not going to cover it.

But with a little compassion and a lot of imagination, we can change a great deal.

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