May 2nd, 2011 | Posted in Income/Poverty
by Eric Zuehlke, web communications manager
The fact is that there aren’t 1 billion starving people in the world. Instead, many have inadequate diets as a result of choices they make. Ultimately, addressing global hunger is actually about nutrition. It’s not so much a problem of access to and supply of food; it’s about the choices people make on how to use limited resources. Food is just one priority among many others that cost money—like TVs, cell phones, weddings, and funerals. So why don’t poor people eat more nutritious foods? The article includes a great quote from George Orwell, who wrote about how food becomes a source of pleasure for those with very limited resources in The Road to Wigan Pier:
“The basis of their diet, therefore, is white bread and margarine, corned beef, sugared tea and potatoes—an appalling diet. Would it not be better if they spent more money on wholesome things like oranges and wholemeal bread or if they even…saved on fuel and ate their carrots raw? Yes, it would, but the point is that no ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing. The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots. And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food. A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man doesn’t.… When you are unemployed … you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit “tasty.” There is always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you.”
If you have very little money, food can become a way of enjoyment when you can’t afford other luxuries or entertainment. In some ways, this is reflected in the increasing rate of obesity in the United States. Cheap, readily made, and heavily processed food is for the most part unhealthy. But it also tastes really good and is satisfying to eat. And this is a key point: “It is simply not very easy to learn about the value of many of these nutrients based on personal experience. Iodine might make your children smarter, but the difference is not huge, and in most cases you will not find out either way for many years. Iron, even if it makes people stronger, does not suddenly turn you into a superhero…So it shouldn’t surprise us that the poor choose their foods not mainly for their cheap prices and nutritional value, but for how good they taste.”
This all comes back to the need to continually re-examine ingrained beliefs and understand local contexts—how people live—especially when it comes to policy choices. Poverty and hunger have often been linked, with an underlying belief that those living in poverty don’t have the resources or ability to buy enough food—but this outlook overlooks the agency of the poor. It’s not simply that they don’t have access to enough food, often they’re choosing to spend their money elsewhere. What are the policy implications of this?