Oped-Hunger is the Richest Nation on Earth

Hunger in the richest nation on earth

The Saturday Nation of 20 September, 2012 had a headline:  ‘. . .  a third of Kenyans go hungry.’ Hunger is one of the most basic threats to human existence, infinitely worse than any terrorist attack, and yet it can go almost unnoticed by those not affected by it. Millions languish, many die, and if you think that hunger is related to a nation’s low economic performance, think again!

More than 48 million U S Americans, in a population of 316,148,990 (2013 figures) rely on what used to be called food stamps and is now termed ‘SNAP’, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. SNAP issues monthly electronic benefits that can be used like cash to purchase food at authorized retail food stores. Eligibility and benefit levels are based on household size, income and other factors.

In 2006 the US Government replaced ‘hunger’ with the term ‘food insecure’. The lexicon has changed and so has the face of hunger. When we Kenyans think of hunger we picture gaunt-faced emaciated people, often Turkana, with protruding ribs and listless children. In the USA the image is very different – more than half of the hungry households are white, living in urban areas next to supermarkets. The members are clothed and housed and at least one person in the family has   a full-time job.

And they are likely to be overweight – an unintended side effect of hunger itself! The decline in wages and the rat race to earn more leaves families unable to cook for themselves.  And so they resort to SNAP to get food from food pantries and soup kitchens where the food is high in starch, salt, sugar and fats; or they patronise the fast food outlets. The government constantly urges its citizens to eat more fruits and vegetables yet these are the most highly priced foods, and grocery stores are hard to come by.

In the US today there are more than 50,000 emergency food programs. Schools have become de facto food banks for children, last year about 19 million children received a free school lunch and increasingly special programs are set up to tide students over the weekends, school holidays and snowy days. Finding food has become a central worry for millions of Americans. And their hunger is not the result of some natural calamity; it is a reality they live with on a daily basis.

The situation is not much better across the ocean in the UK where13 million people live below the poverty line. (In 2013, the population was 64 million) Everyday people in the UK go hungry for reasons ranging from redundancy to receiving an unexpected bill on a low income. Rising food and fuel prices, static incomes, underemployment and changes to benefits are some of the reasons why increasing numbers are being referred to food banks for emergency food – and the prevailing austerity measures do not help matters. Trussell Trust foodbanks provide a minimum of three days emergency food and support to people experiencing crisis in the UK. In 2013-14, foodbanks fed 913,138 people nationwide. Of those helped, 330,205 were children. The Trust partners with churches and communities to open new foodbanks nationwide. ‘With over 420 foodbanks currently launched, our goal is for every town to have one,’ it says.

So the question begs: ‘Why should there be so much malnourishment and hunger in the richest countries on Earth? And not just richest, the most ‘democratic’ too?’ What hope then is there for us in the Third World for ever feeding our people and achieving food security?

Of course there are those who maintain that the welfare systems in these ‘developed’ countries breed never-do-well, lazy, parasites who have no qualms living off society. No doubt there are a few of those who fit this description but we know from our own everyday experience that human beings have a certain pride and dignity which makes them strive, often in the most adverse conditions, to sustain themselves and their families. No-one, but no-one opts to live a life of hunger or malnourishment. A mother, however desperate, will move heaven and earth to find a morseful for her hungry child. And the worker or farmer who labours long hours does so primarily to feed themself and their family.

Food (including water) is the most basic of basic human rights. Without it we cannot survive. So the question and the goal of food security should be the primary concern of any government that professes to care about its citizens. In Kenya today we hope to meet this all-important goal by growing our GDP and holding inflation down to single digits. Vision 2030 is the buzz word and Democracy is a must! And yet what is the experience on the ground telling us? That a sizeable number of citizens of the richest nations on earth go hungry and are malnourished.

Is it not time that we faced this stark reality, ask the relevant questions and look further afield for the answers? For in the end, no matter how high the GDP or how democratic the governance or how much food the country produces, if it does not reach the people, the government or the system has failed in its most primary of functions and responsibilities. We continue to ignore this hidden crisis at our own peril.

Zarina Patel


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