What is Hunger?

I will warn you from the start that this post has a good deal of technical language, and wouldn’t necessarily be considered as entertaining as some of my other posts are.  However, because I’ll be talking about the more technical aspects of hunger in the next few posts, I thought it would be nice to lay some groundwork, in case you haven’t studied hunger and food security before.

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I have already indicated that many of the children in my school are hungry and live in food insecure homes.  I’ll come back to what exactly food security is in a bit.  Hunger, as you know, if a feeling people get when they haven’t eaten in awhile.  Pretty simple, right?  Things get a little murkier when you start looking at hunger as it relates to international development. 

What exactly is hunger?

There are a few different types of hunger.  One of them is simply the feeling you get when you haven’t eaten for a few hours.  Everyone has experienced this, and this is NOT what people mean when they talk about hungry children. 

What we mean when we talk about hunger is children who do not get enough food or who do not get enough of the right kinds of food.  Did you know a child can have three full meals everyday, rarely experience the sensation of hunger, yet still be very malnourished?  A child can also be overweight and be malnourished.  How?  Well, malnourishment simply means a condition which is caused by not eating enough healthy foods.  An obese child is every bit as malnourished as an underweight child.

Protein-energy malnutrition (PEM) is the kind of hunger discussed when aid and relief options are put on the table.  These are the “hungry children” I have mentioned in my blog.  PEM happens when a person is not getting enough protein or calories (energy) from the food they eat.  A person could have three meals a day and feel full, but still suffer from PEM.  This frequently happens when a person is eating primarily empty carbohydrates (rice, pap-stiff maize porridge, potatoes, corn tortillas, etc) without any meat or other protein sources. 

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Kwashiorkor causes hair to lose colour.

One form of PEM is Kwashiorkor, which is a severe protein deficiency.  It frequently happens when a child is weaned from breast milk and given food of inferior quality and nutrition.  Kwashiorkor loosely translates into “what happens to the child when another child is born,” referring to the period when a child is weaned.  In severe cases, children will lose hair color, have thinning hair, develop bloated bellies, and/or have swelling in the legs.  Dozens of kids at my school have wispy, blondish hair, indicating cases of severe Kwashiorkor.

Another form of PEM is marasmus, which is severe emaciation.  When you see pictures of a child who is skin and bones-frighteningly thin, you are looking at a child with marasmus.  Marasmus is a condition where there is severe calorie (energy) deficiency, resulting in rapid fat loss.  Some kids and adults in my village show signs of marasmus.

Both conditions are life-threatening if left untreated. 

Milder (though still danger
ous) cases of malnutrition are manifested by children being at a low height-for-age (stunting), low weight-for-age (underweight), or low weight-for-height (wasted).  If a child is below the 5th percentile for weight or height, they are considered moderately to severely malnourished.  What does this mean?  Percentiles are a way to determine how a child is growing/developing compared to their peers (worldwide, children of their age and gender).  If a child is at the 90th percentile for height, 89% of kids their age and gender are shorter than they are.  If a child is at the 25th percentile for weight, 74% of children their age and gender are heavier than they are. 

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Underweight children watching a gardening demonstration.

If a child is at or below the 5th percentile for either height or weight, it indicates either short-term or long-term malnutrition.  An underweight child (at or below the 5th percentile for weight) could be suffering from seasonal or chronic hunger because weight fluctuates frequently.  Low weight is easier to treat and more likely to be “caught up” at a later stage, if a child is given the proper nutrition.  A wasted child (low weight-for-height) is often a child who has suffered from being underweight for a long period of time, and is now wasted.  It is a more serious condition than being underweight.  A stunted child (at or below the 5th percentile for height) indicates long-term malnutrition, resulting in a child whose growth is stunted.  Stunting can be treated, but stunted children rarely “catch up” later on, even if they are given the proper nutrition.  Furthermore, stunted women frequently give birth to underweight babies, meaning they are already malnourished at birth.

Hidden hunger is another form of malnutrition, different from PEM because the body receives enough of both protein and energy (calories), but is still malnourished.  Hidden hunger is a micronutrient deficiency, and can have severe impacts on health.  Deficiencies of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients can inhibit the body’s ability to develop or function, causing secondary infection and defects.  Hidden hunger is not visible or even noticeable, and therefore is frequently ignored.  Though it is hard to know without proper testing, signs indicate that many of the children at my school suffer from hidden hunger in one form or another.

All of this relates back to food security.  If a household is food insecure, the children are more likely to be impacted and experience hunger.  But what exactly is food security?

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“Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy lifestyle.” (FAO 2005)

For a household to be considered food secure, they must be able to afford, buy, and prepare enough nutritious and healthy food for everyone in the house, during all seasons of the year.  Food security can be transitory, meaning a household can move from being food secure to being food insecure and back throughout the year, based on employment, growing seasons, etc.

What is food insecurity?  It’s the lack of the above criteria.  Also, “food insecurity exists when people are undernourished as a result of the physical unavailability of food, their lack of social or economic access to adequate food and/or inadequate food utilization.”  Furthermore, a person is considered food insecure when their “food intake falls below their minimum calorie (energy) requirements”. (FAO 2005)

Keep posted for information on how all of this technical information relates to my service and the children at my school.
-Jen

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About Jen Daugherty

Christ follower. Writer. Permaculturist. RPCV. Photographer. Real Food Eater. Daughter of God.

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