We’ve all felt the physical signs of a missed meal or a skipped snack. But real hunger—hunger on a global scale—goes beyond a rumbling stomach or hunger pang. It’s a symptom of a broken global food system. Closely related is the current state of global food security. A less visible problem, food insecurity refers to when an individual or household doesn’t know when—or if—their next meal is coming. Even more specifically, food insecurity refers to an inability to get affordable, nutritious food. It affects people around the world of every age and in every country. And it isn’t always about how much money you have. The 2018 Global Report on Food Crises found that 124 million people, living in 51 nations, face crisis-level hunger. And according to the Hunger in America study in 2014, 17.4 million US households were food insecure at some time during the year. From refugees fleeing violent governments, to seniors living on fixed incomes and parents who have to choose between feeding their children or keeping a roof over their heads, the impacts of food insecurity are clear. But what about the causes?
Food insecurity as a cycle
“What if you had to make the choice between meals and medicine? Between making rent and filling lunch boxes?” Feeding America asks in their Illuminating Intersections: Hunger and Health video. The video goes on to unpack how difficult it can be for a family to get out of the food insecurity cycle. A cycle that, for those who have never experienced food insecurity, can be challenging to understand. Food insecurity doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Instead, it’s often at the intersection of physical, mental, and socioeconomic factors. Usually, it’s a combination of stress and poor nutrition that worsens over time. It could begin with a lack of funds during a particularly difficult month. The family makes small compromises to “catch up” financially. For example, they opt for cheap, calorically-dense fast food instead of cooking meals at home. Or, the family car breaks down. Because the family lives in an urban food desert, they’re no longer able to drive to the nearest grocery store for healthy food. Over time, these small compromises have a cumulative effect on the household’s health. According to the same report, most households who rely on food banks have at least one person managing a chronic, diet-related disease. Over half of all food-insecure households have at least one member with high blood pressure or managing a chronic illness. These illnesses, often preventable with proper nutrition, only make the cycle worse. Suddenly, it takes more money, time, and energy to treat the health condition—which was caused by a lack of money, time, and energy in the first place. This leaves the household with even scarcer resources.
Impacts of the scarcity mindset
And even when households break the cycle, the effects of food insecurity remain. As NPR correspondent Shankar Vedantam explains, “When you’re hungry, it’s hard to think of anything other than food, when you’re desperately poor, you constantly worry about making ends meet. Scarcity produces a kind of tunnel vision, and it explains why, when we’re in a hole, we often lose sight of long-term priorities and dig ourselves even deeper.” This tunnel vision may explain why so many people who grew up in poverty struggle as adults to make healthy food choices. Plus, according to Feeding America, research shows links between food insecurity and delayed development, as well as behavioral problems like hyperactivity, anxiety, and aggression in school-aged children. These developmental and behavioral problems have far-reaching implications, even well into adulthood. They can even kickstart the cycle that led to childhood food insecurity in the first place. This leads to another generation of food insecure adults.
Causes of food insecurity
It’s true that low-income households do report higher instances of food insecurity. But placing the blame here oversimplifies the issue. On a global level, politics, climate change, disease outbreaks, and natural disasters all impact food security. Other factors, including stable access to housing and child care, play an essential role as well. Another issue is a family’s ability to access hunger relief programs, including local food banks, SNAP benefits, and more. Essentially, the World Health Organization breaks food security down into three main aspects. These are availability, access, and utilization.
This aspect looks at whether a food supply is regularly available to individuals and communities. The food can either be imported or locally grown. Things that limit food availability include climate, a lack of natural resources, and whether the land is farmable. Natural disasters can also impact food availability.
Access to food
Even with plenty of food available, not everybody has the means to access it. Access refers to an individual’s ability to “obtain appropriate food for a nutritious diet.” The keyword here is nutritious. If you can get a candy bar from the corner market, but don’t have access to fresh fruits and vegetables, you might still be considered food insecure.
Food utilization refers to whether people have the resources and education to make proper use of nutritious food. That means eating a variety of foods that provide proper micro and macronutrients. A Peace Corps article on food insecurity explains it best. “In many parts of the world experiencing food insecurity, people may consume sufficient quantities of starchy staple foods like potatoes, rice, maize, and cassava, but insufficient quantities of protein, oils, dairy, fruits, and vegetables that make up a balanced diet.”
Addressing food insecurity
Whatever the root causes, combating food insecurity requires a twofold approach. First, we need to empower organizations that provide immediate hunger relief to people within our communities. That means finding ways to support food banks and other hunger relief organizations. Second, we need creative ways to address food security challenges caused by the global food system itself. And playing a crucial role in both? Advancements in technology that change the way we approach food insecurity, both on local and global levels.
Connecting small farmers with a global economy
In a global economy, a lack of connection is a death sentence to small farms and rural farmers. Even more important, technology is connecting farmers with consumers, and in turn, with the resources they need to grow their farms. From the farm-to-table movement in America to the digitization of rural farms in Africa, technology is changing the conversation around agricultural production. As Kofi Annan and Sam Dryden write for Foreign Affairs, “Until now, it has been very hard to get information to or from smallholders, preventing their efficient integration into the broader economy. But mobile communications can shatter this isolation and enable the creation of a new food system suited to contemporary needs.” Instead of rural farmers being agricultural islands, technology is creating a vast network that improves production and profitability and improves food security for countless communities.
Predicting the impacts of global climate change on food security
Climate change is one of the most significant challenges that modern farmers face. Worldwide, we’re seeing extreme weather patterns, more natural disasters, and less access to resources. So how can technology help? Well, it gives us the benefit of foresight.At a recent climate change conference in Paris, the UN debuted its food security and climate change vulnerability map. The World Food Programme predicts this sort of technology will let politicians and citizens alike see the potential impact of their actions, encouraging more responsible on the personal, corporate, and national levels.
Empowering individuals to help their communities
Not only can technology connect us with our food and farmers. It can connect us with each other. Some of the most exciting innovations allow ordinary people to support each other. For example, the World Food Programme’s Share the Meal app helps provide aid to some of the world’s largest food crisis areas. And the platform is simple. Users download the app, sign up to “share a meal,” and WFP donates funds to food-insecure families around the world. Their website claims it costs 50 US cents to feed a child for a day.
Raising awareness and feeding the world (one step at a time)
Charitable apps like Share the Meal are only one way that technology helps us fight food insecurity. But social media may provide an even more straightforward tool: awareness. By raising awareness around hunger and food insecurity, both local and global, I want to create connections that turn into solutions. That’s why I launched my For the Grainer Good™ initiative, and brainstormed the Climb and give Program. Because I believe together, through thousands of small steps, we’ll be able to move the needle on hunger in the right direction.