Hunger is about more than food

Did you know that if a child doesn’t get adequate nutrition in their first 1000 days of life, their development may be irreversibly damaged? This window of time, from conception to when the baby is two years old, is a unique period that lays the foundations for a human’s health, growth and neurodevelopment. Poor nutrition can lead to stunted growth of the brain and the body.

In South Africa, an estimated 27% of children under five are stunted, indicating chronic malnutrition among this age group. This is higher than the global average of 22%. Not only does this have devastating individual level and community consequences, but as a country we will not be able to economically thrive if more than a quarter of our population cannot reach their full developmental, and subsequent economic potential – trapping many in the vicious cycle of poverty.

This links precisely to the theme for World Hunger Day 2021: Access Ends Hunger. “Hunger and poverty are inextricably linked to a nexus of issues, including the rights of women and girls, income opportunities, health education, social justice, the environment and climate change,” it explains on the website.

Researchers from the Nourished Child study are working in communities to investigate access to food and other resources with the hope of using their findings to increase understanding of what a systems approach to improving the quality of diets for women of childbearing age and children under five would look like, thus contributing to better access and more nutritious diets in the first 1000 days and beyond.

As food systems researcher at the African Centre for Cities (ACC) at the University of Cape Town (UCT), and Nourished Child co-investigator Gareth Haysom explained in a previous article: “Negative food system outcomes are only in part the result of failures in the food system. Multiple urban systems, from water to energy, from transport to waste, from food access locations, to time poverty, from the gendered nature of household food provisioning to livelihood generation strategies, all intersect to influence the food system outcomes for most urban residents, particularly the poor. Seeing food and nutrition outcomes as separate to these systems is short sighted.”

Jane Battersby, project co-investigator, Assoc Prof at ACC and senior lecturer in the Environmental and Geographical Science department at UCT, also notes that “caregivers struggle to provide their children with safe and healthy foods because of poor access to clean and reliable water. Poor water and sanitation also mean their children often suffer from diarrhoea, leaving the children vulnerable to malnutrition.”

Here are three more reasons to care about hunger:
It’s not really getting better
Food insecurity has persistently increased since 2014, and between 2018 and 2019 the number of hungry people increased by 10 million. Currently an estimated 690 million people globally live in chronic hunger, 60% of which are women. Not surprisingly, but still shocking, 98% of people suffering from undernourishment live in low- and middle-income countries.

In South Africa high levels of food insecurity is an ongoing problem. In 2017, about 16% of households reported inadequate access to food, 11% reported vulnerability to hunger, and 5.5 % of the population reported severely inadequate access to food (StatsSA, 2019). The situation has of course worsened during COVID-19, and the most recent NIDS-CRAM results show that in May/June 2020 about 22% of South African adults reported that their households experienced hunger, with 47% reporting the household ran out of money for food. Though it showed a decrease in Feb/March 2021 to 17% and 39% respectively, following the reopening of the economy and downgrades in lockdown rules, this decline was uneven, disfavouring the most poor and vulnerable. Hunger was also associated with poor health outcomes in this period (NIDS-CRAM).

It also impacts chronic disease, overweight and obesity
If you are hungry, but you have little or no money, and no financial or physical access to a diverse range of foods, you are more likely to buy easily accessible, cheap ultra-processed foods that are high in energy, fat, salt and sugar, putting you at a higher risk for developing overweight and obesity and chronic diseases. You are also less likely to include vegetables, fruit and protein in your diet on a regular basis and thus more likely to become micronutrient and protein deficient.

Hunger is about an experience of lived poverty, so being in a situation where there aren’t adequate opportunities, infrastructure, access to social and health care services, and where there is a lack of choice about the types of food you can eat because of all these reasons, and can contribute to poor health, overweight and chronic disease.

Says Jo Hunter-Adams, Nourished Child co-investigator in this article: “Though there is virtual consensus on the negative impact of ultra-processed food on health, these foods are nevertheless being consumed in huge quantities, and are palatable, available, affordable, and shelf-stable. This comes at great costs to both people and the planet, and must be part of the calculus if they are to be part of our future food system.”

It is a solvable problem
Researchers from the Nourished Child project believes that by taking a ‘whole of society approach’, food systems can be strengthened in such a way that it has a real impact on people’s live and improve diets. This would however mean that different sectors in cities and communities, such as the people who are responsible for economic opportunities and building malls, urban planners, representatives from the healthcare departments, social development, agriculture and transport, among others, all come together to design a plan to make eating healthy and nutritious foods possible. It’s however important for these plans to be designed around the needs and challenges of each community, so it won’t be a one-size-fits-all plan. But what can be mutually adapted is the principle of connecting different systems with each other. The more people understand that hunger impacts nutrition, and that nutrition is not only a health systems problem and that many different departments has a role in this, the more likely it is for policies to change to make the financial and human resource support for these new plans to be implemented.