We need to talk about hunger


If you look through the door of my pantry you will see a window into my world.  My pantry expresses my likes and dislikes and my cultural background by the presence and absence of certain goods. You will also see that in my house, we are not hungry.  I have been hungry in the past.  I plan against this by stocking up for the possibility that there might come a day when I might not have money.  It isn’t an entirely rational approach to domestic food provisioning as it is a practice that produces waste.  But, I always know where my next meal is coming from.  And I also know I am lucky to be able to be so potentially wasteful. My household budget is shaped by my past experience of hunger.  I am sure I am not alone, but for some reason hunger is not a fashionable term these days.  What is that all about?

I have been meaning to write a post about HUNGER for a while, but a couple of conversations I’ve had with different people recently have made it clear to me that the time is right.  In the first conversation we were planing an event to bring together 3rd sector organisations in Sheffield to discuss food justice issues and the problems these organisations are facing.  One of my colleagues commented on  “that food bank debate debacle”, which refers to a debate held recently in the House of Commons concerning the dramatic rise in food bank use by people in the UK.  The second was at a meeting I attended of an interdisciplinary group of academics who all do research on food.  We were discussing what key words were central to the group’s mission.  I suggested hunger might be a word that tied us all together. The woman next to me immediately piped up “Hunger is such an old fashioned word.”  Is it really?  Tell that to the child who recently revealed to her head teacher in Sheffield that she hadn’t eaten all weekend (See the story in the here).

What people say, and the words they use are windows into how societies understand problems.  My friend’s comments about “the food bank debacle” were expressing an understanding that there is a large proportion of the UK population who view those who use food banks as being unable to manage their resources effectively.  The fact that these people are hungry is obfuscated by their failure to practice that long-standing British value of thrift appropriately.

cooking stuffThe Anthropologist, Danny Miller in his book, A theory of Shopping, and also in his paper Making Love in the Supermarkets, elaborates how thrift is a cultural value that expresses care and love.  But if you are skint, no amount of thrift is going to feed your family.  If you’ve not got the tools to cook–and I am talking about a pan, a couple of utensils, a cooker, and a place to store foodstuffs–then your choices with regard to what you can buy are limited.  When I was at university and for about 10 years after eating mac and cheese from a box or Top Ramen because all I had to cook with was an electric kettle.  I used to take the saltine crackers and mustard from the restaurant I worked for when I could not even afford that. It was cheap food and I could make it with what I had, though nutritionally a poor choice.  I ate it because I was hungry, though I didn’t look like the children in Africa that we see on the television who are starving.  You don’t have to be starving to be hungry, though to starve you have to be hungry first.

Of course not all of the 350,000 households who received a three-day supply of emergency food via the Trussell Trust’s network of food banks are without cooking equipment.  But that doesn’t mean that they turned to food banks because of their own poor stewardship. The most cited reason for turning to a food bank in the UK was as a result of a delay in recieving benefits (nearly 30%) or because their benefits package had changed (about 15%).  In other words, unexpected changes in the way that the government handles benefits are directly responsible for nearly half of the increase in demand for emergency food aid in the UK. What is more, in order to receive emergency food aid in the UK from the Trussell Trust you must be referred to a food bank(1).  You must demonstrate to someone (a gatekeeper) who has the vouchers that you are hungry and someone must recognise this.  The fact is an increasing number of people are hungry in the UK today, which is why Jack Monroe campaigned to get the debate into the House of common’s in the first instance.

What made the debate in the House of Commons, to use the words of my friend, a debacle, was the fact that not only did the minister in charge of such things, Ian Duncan Smith, sneak out of the debate early, but when the figures regarding the use of food banks in the UK were being read out and the stories of individuals were being told those who are part of the government in charge laughed.  Since when is laughing at the hunger of our neighbours appropriate?

One can only assume that there is a lack of understanding, and indeed this is what is revealed in my colleagues comments about the lack of fashion in the term hunger and also in the sub-minister, Ester McVey, who responded to the rise in the use of food banks as being generally a good thing (see the speech here, the point at where this is expressed is 8 minutes into the video and her statement that the rise in food bank use is positive comes at about 8.28 minutes—a speech where she refuses to address the current problem of hunger but instead spends the majority of her time placing blame).  McVey also sites statistics about employment figures, but fails to acknowledge that a significant number of those who are accessing food banks are in employment (see this post by Jack Monroe). To me, saying “If you are hungry then use a food bank” is akin to Marie Antoinette’s famous proclamation in response to the hungry in France claiming they had no bread… and look what happened there. Food banks are there to help, but collectively, we need to offer and demand more from our government and from those employers who do not pay a living wage.

Of course hunger, and an increase in the use of food banks, is not unique to the UK.  According to the World Food Programme, across the world there are more people who are hungry than the combined populations of the US, Canada, and the EU and it is a truly global issue.   Over the last few years the US has also seen a rise in food bank use (6.1 million users of food banks in 2012 according to FeedingAmerica, which The Corporation for National and Community Service estimates is an increase of somewhere between 28%-38% ), as has the world freest economy, Hong Kong (one in four children in Hong Kong do not have access to three meals a day according to Feeding Hong Kong).  What the US, the UK and Hong Kong have in common is not a global recession (I have heard many in Asia refer to the global recession as instead the western recession, as indeed the Chinese economy continued to grow at double digit rates during the period), or national budget deficits that require balancing (Hong Kong has had budget surpluses in recent years), but instead governments in which a large component of those who hold power value individual financial gain over the welfare of all and prioritise policy that results in the widening of the gap between rich and poor.  In all three contexts, and I dare say elsewhere, hunger is present not because there is no food in that place (food waste remains a big problem in the US, UK and in Hong Kong), but because an increasing proportion of the population cannot afford to regularly buy the food that is available, let alone buy the food and the housing and the equipment that enables eating that offers good nutrition.

In order to see the problem of hunger we, as a society, need to listen to how we talk about hunger and we need to start using the word in its fullest sense.  More fashionable terms like food insecurity and food justice have their place and are useful in some contexts but, they also have the effect of diverting our attention from the fact that people are hungry. Today. Tonight. Tomorrow.  I sympathise with the positions that argue a focus on hunger has in the past led to programmes that increase dependence, or lead to monoculture, or result in solutions that produce food that is not culturally sensitive (see this Ted Video of LaDonna Redmond for an excellent explanation of this last issue–but note also she uses the word hunger).  In dismissing the term, we have forgotten what is at stake, made it more polite, and therefor more easy to disregard as something that happens to someone else, somewhere else.  We need to talk about hunger and we need to think about how our collective values and the government policy that arises from those values helps create the conditions within which those who have limited power go hungry. At the same time, we need to think about how our food (and other) decisions impact on the lives of our neighbours as well as those who live across the world.  Hunger is both a global and a local issue.


(1) We don’t actually know how many people access emergency food support or how many organisations offer emergency support either as a parcel or in some other form.  Government resists counting.

I have written about the ways that things and resources come together to inform food possibilities in a few previous posts.  One that is perhaps most relevant is this one concerning a recipe by Jamie Oliver.  It was called (Not) a middle class point of view: Bloke’s Pasta.  There are also a couple that are particularly focused on hunger in Hong Kong. Perhaps most relevant is Street Food, Everyday Live, and Patterns of Inequality.

This post was also entered into the WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge. The theme this week is Window.  You can find other posts in the Challenge here.

9 thoughts on “We need to talk about hunger

  1. Pingback: Weekly Photo Challenge – Window | Joe's Musings

  2. Pingback: We need to talk about Hunger | A World to Discover

  3. The last few years, we say people who are hungry have “food insecurity”. I have always been offended by this. Might be to broaden the idea from hungry right this minute to never really knowing where their next meal is coming from. But it takes the honesty out of the problem when one says that x number of people have food insecurity rather than x number of people don’t have enough to eat on a regular basis.

      • For clarity and for understanding, I’d think one would want to call a spade a spade and a shovel a shove unless it doesn’t matter which tool you want to use, if efficiency weren’t important. If for example, you just wanted to hit something with it!

  4. Excellent, thought provoking post. Here in the US, the big box stores like Walmart and Costco actually make it cheaper to buy bulk and throw away. It would be so much better if they could figure a way to donate instead. I think people would still buy. Anyway, thanks for the reminder and for doing it so compellingly.

    • Thanks Tina, for your comments. They are welcomed and appreciated. It is the same in the UK. Other downside with the bulk model is, of course you have to have storage. Not an issue for many American’s, but a big issue if you live in shared housing or in city centres where housing is smaller–in other words harder for the poor. We need a better food system.

      You can find me at https://geofoodie.org/. Please come visit.


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  6. Pingback: Weekly Photo Challenge: Window (3) Pub Christmas Drinks | What's (in) the picture?

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