Tag Archives: hunger

Thankful for families, or not

Hunger is unequally distributed around the world, as we know. And in the places where hunger is a serious problem, it also is unequally distributed within families.

Around the world, populations range from almost no systemic undernourishment to more than 35% undernourished (click for the full PDF map):

How do families help? Naturally, parents feed their children when they’re young, and when necessary children feed their parents when they’re old. When parents or children are too poor to feed each other, governments, others in the community, or aid agencies may help. And when there is no government or other aid, the people without families are especially vulnerable.

Within families, though, nutrition flows unevenly.

The tendency of parents to give girl children less food has been observed in studies from India, Bangladesh and others, but it is not universal – varying between regions and across family types and children’s ages, for example. Local variability offers insights into how this works: Indian communities in which adult women have relatively higher status show less discrimination against girls.

These things are never quite as simple as they seem, though. For example, in some parts of South Asia fertility has fallen but there is still strong son preference. One implication is sex selective abortion — because the stakes are higher when they’re only having a couple children, parents may get desperate for one of them to be a son. The other thing that happens is people are more likely to stop bearing children after they have a son – not after they have a daughter. Math-wise, that means daughters have more siblings, on average. And that brings us back to boys getting more food — which is especially the case in larger families.

Personally

I hate child hunger, a subject painful enough that I exercise my tenure-given right to choose a different research topic. Disparities in educational opportunity or gender socialization are one thing, but gross differences in mid-upper arm circumference (representing malnutrition) are something else. But charitable giving is easier than research.

If you’re fortunate enough to be able to give some charity this year, consider adding the right international targets into your giving mix. Our family’s non-systematic review of charitable options has produced two leading targets: Love Without Boundaries which provides humanitarian aid, including medical care, to Chinese orphans and poor children; and Doctors Without Borders, which provides medical aid to those most in need in many countries. In addition to their reputations for sound financial management and good ethics (check Charity Navigator or another evaluator), these organizations help provide for people when their families can’t or won’t.

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Shame and pity: Headless obesity and pitiful starvation

Fat people shown with no heads, starving children shown with dull stares? The short explanation may be the difference between a shaming frame and a pity frame. Fat people are blamed for their obesity, so to show their faces stimulates shame and stigma. Starving children are helpless, homogeneous victims, so to stare into their eyes stimulates feelings of pity in the viewer.

The news media’s practice of showing what Charlotte Cooper has called “headless fatties” is ubiquitous. I won’t belabor it, but here are a few examples from the New York Times, Washington Post and Reuters web sites:

Writing about this phenomenon on a news blog, Nate Jones says,

Picturing the obese without heads is a handy solution for an age-old problem: How do you illustrate a story on obesity without shining a spotlight on any individuals? Cropping out faces is more polite — and more legal — than leaving them in, the thinking goes. It’s journalism at its most paternalistic.

And then he asks,

Assuming we don’t stop covering obesity stories entirely, is there a way to illustrate them without saying, “Hello, you are fat. May I take your picture?”

But wait a minute. Why not ask that?

It seems to me that, in sparing a few news photographers some embarrassment – as they approach strangers and ask them this question – the media instead perpetuates the shame, embarrassment and stigma of millions of other people. (And if a few people get over it, ask, and show the full picture, it might just be less difficult to have the conversation the next time.)

Here’s a suggestion: instead of approaching people while they are eating alone on the boardwalk or at a fast food restaurant, how about finding people at work or school or playing with their children, and showing them living real, complicated, human lives with a potentially risky health condition?

An unscientific sample: Here are the 17 pictures on the first page of my Google images search for “obesity men.” The pictures include 15 individuals, 9 of whom have no faces. (The equivalent search for women yielded 30 obese people, 17 of whom were faceless.)

On the other hand

So why is it so different for starving children? Here are the Google images of “starving child.”

They all have faces. Also, none of them are White Americans (which makes sense, since hardly anyone starves in America). Also, maybe no one asked their permission to use their likenesses.

For obese people in a rich country, the shame and stigma is a big part of the problem itself — as the anguish it causes undermines healthy behavior. Shame and stigma does not promote healthy weight loss.

For starving children in a poor country, the pity of rich-country viewers is also part of the problem, because it becomes the story, detracting from systematic impoverishment and exploitation. For them, pity also seems ineffective at generating solutions.

Showing pictures of obese people and starving children in the news is important. Both of these practices set up dehumanizing scenarios, however, because they do not create images of complete people in the social contexts of their lives.

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Hunger in the human family

Give or take, a billion people are undernourished (on Earth, which is as far as the data extend). It’s been a very rough couple of years for world hunger, but the UN estimates that 2010 is looking a little better than last year.

In the U.S., the situation is much better. There are 42 million people receiving food stamps — or 14% of the population — but at least they’re getting food stamps. Poverty and malnutrition here take a toll on a smaller scale — easy to say, of course, from a big-numbers point of view. If the UN says only 19 million people in the rich countries are seriously undernourished on account of poverty, here the issue is less total nutrition and more food security and proper, safe nutrition.

According to the American Dietetic Association, 15% of households, or 49 million people, experienced food insecurity at some time during 2008 — which represents a dramatic 32% spike from 2007, after eight years of relative stability, according to the New England Journal of Medicine. The problem is concentrated most among the poor, single parents, and Black and Latino families, who all had higher-than-average insecurity rates:

Source: My graph from American Dietetic Association. Food insecurity is defined as: “Limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.”

In the U.S., children whose families suffer from food insecurity have more health problems, but also lower academic achievement as well as psychological and behavioral problems. Food insecurity has pernicious effects on health for adults as well. Even controlling for age, gender, race, educational attainment, and income — and limiting the analysis to adults below the poverty line — those experiencing food insecurity are more likely to have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes. According to the NEJM article, this is how it might work:

Finally, we need to remember that families are not individual actors, but groups of people tied together in complex an unequal ways. Like money, power, and violence, food itself is unequally distributed within families. This has mostly been the subject of studies in poor countries, where economic pressure comes down harder on some family members more than others — sometimes to the benefit of men, sometimes male children. But even in the U.S., where hunger is much less prevalent, recent evidence suggests children are less likely to suffer food insecurity when mothers, rather than fathers, control the family budget.

Inequality, global and local.

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