Illustrations by Kiersten West
A Greater Price to Pay:
Poverty and Food Insecurity
by Patrick Reyes

 Progress and innovation have always marked humanity’s steady march into the future. Long ago, our collective efforts allowed us to depart from the simple question of surviving, onto the ever-grander unknown of thriving. Or so one would think. Despite the advances and discoveries of the 21st century, for many people, the issue of survival still takes precedence. According to a 2015 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), 795 million people around the world, or about one in nine people on Earth, are undernourished and remain in a state of what is known as “food insecurity” (United Nations, “State of Food Insecurity”). According to the FAO, food security consists of four factors: the physical availability of food, the economic and physical access to food, the utilization and nutritional value of food, and the relative stability of the other three factors (United Nations, “An Introduction”). Thus, food insecurity results from a deficiency in any of these four factors. But it is the question of access that perplexes the most and prompts the need for further investigation, especially the issue of economic access. The correlation between poverty and food insecurity remains strong: FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva noted that, of the 795 million food insecure in 2015, 780 million were from the developing regions of the world (United Nations, “State of Food Insecurity”). Global rises in food prices also continue to restrict access to food for the poor. But food insecurity has far greater consequences than simply going hungry. Malnutrition results in poor physical and cognitive development, and affects a person’s productivity and income, thereby further exacerbating both food insecurity and poverty in a vicious cycle between the two (United Nations, “An Introduction”). Thus, not only do the poor already suffer the most from food insecurity, but they are also the most susceptible to further increases in food insecurity. Unless certain measures and solutions are implemented to feed the poor and combat poverty, the rate of food insecurity around the world will only grow, and millions already hungry will see no relief in the near future. Tackling the problem requires an understanding of how poverty results in, and worsens, food insecurity. Lack of economic development and government aid both contribute to poverty, thereby contributing to food insecurity by affecting the poor and their access to food.

Because of poverty’s role in the manifestation of food insecurity, one can examine food security as an economic problem. Professor emeritus of Ohio State University Luther Tweeten notes that access, not availability, is of the utmost concern among the four factors of food insecurity. Tweeten points out that “availability of food… is not now of overriding interest, given the rising per capita global supply” (475). To demonstrate the notion that access supersedes the question of availability, Tweeten cites Indian economist Amartya Sen’s observations of the 1943 Bengali famine, wherein food was readily available, but many starved due to the following economic factors: lack of buying power, prohibitive prices, and a lack of transfer payments such as welfare, government subsidies, or social security (475). In this way, one can consider the problem of food insecurity in the 21st century as a manifestation of low incomes and ailing economies. Food may very well be plentiful and abundant, but the reason many still in the world still starve is that they have no economic access to it. To that end, Tweeten concludes that “because it is the poor who lack access to food, alleviating food insecurity means alleviating poverty” (476).

why do some countries falter while others improve and prosper?

To understand the underlying root causes of economic decline on poverty and food insecurity, one need only look at areas of the developing world affected by these problems. For example, developing countries in Africa have experienced a general increase in food insecurity in recent decades, while other regions of the globe improved, and saw decreases instead. The FAO found that in the period between 1969-1971 and 1990-1992, while countries in East and Southeast Asia saw a reduction of 207 million in the number of undernourished people, sub-Saharan Africa saw an addition of 112 million (Tweeten 474). This begs the question: why do some countries falter while others improve and prosper? The answer, again, lies in poverty.

Sisay Asefa, professor of economics at Western Michigan University, focused on Ethiopia as a case study for economics and food insecurity in Africa. He notes that, despite its large and diverse population, and its great agro-economic potential, Ethiopia has played host to many of the problems facing other African nations in recent decades such as conflict, economic mismanagement, and political ineptitude (Asefa 59). To that end, Asefa concludes that “Thus, there are few socio-economic, political, and agro-ecological conditions in Africa that do not have some manifestation in Ethiopia” (Asefa 59). Despite the fact that 60% of Ethiopian land was suitable for agricultural production in 2003, only 10% was being cultivated, undermining an economy that was, and still is, based primarily on agriculture (Asefa 60). And since smallholder farms produce conduct 95% of Ethiopian agriculture, a weak economy with unfulfilled potential contributes to poverty by lowering incomes, which in turn, contributes to food insecurity (Asefa 60). Highlighting the “strong link between lack of economic growth, poverty, and food insecurity,” Asefa notes the dichotomy between progress in East Asia and stagnation and decline in Africa, by observing that “East Asia is also the region where the fastest economic growth and poverty reduction has taken place” (Asefa 61). Empowering the poor by raising incomes and improving economies has already proven to be a strong solution in the fight against food insecurity. Thus, by eliminating poverty, economic development can be a key to reducing food insecurity.

This principle does not only apply exclusively to the developing regions of the world, however. Economic development also plays just as profound a role in developed, Western nations. This may come as a surprise to some who believe that hunger and starvation are a problem the Western world has successfully managed and cordoned off to far-away places in Africa or South Asia. Some believe that developed countries possess the abundance of food that developing countries do not, and that this surplus acts as a bulwark against hunger in developed countries. However, the fact of the matter is that people still go hungry in developed nations, and the root of the problem again lies in lack of economic access to food. For example, a 2009 study conducted in the city of Ontario sought to explore the correlations between food insecurity and one’s socio-demographic factors. In that study, Valerie Tarasuk and Janet Vogt found that poverty proved the strongest factor in determining one’s state of food security, stating that “Even after other socio-demographic factors were taken into account, the odds of experiencing household food insecurity rose… as the adequacy of household income declined” (185). Again, one’s income determines the state of one’s food security. Just as it was in 1943 Bengal, so it is in modern day Ethiopia and Ontario: despite the availability of food, one’s economic access to it, or lack thereof, decides whether one goes hungry or not.

Two common threads in the relationship between poverty and food insecurity lie in two entities that affect one?s economic standing: the economy and the government.

Tarasuk and Vogt’s study also noted something else of interest that Tweeten highlighted as well. Of the food insecure households found in Ontario, 61% were also reliant on social assistance (Tarasuk and Vogt 185), just as Tweeten noted the lack of government assistance in the Bengali famine. Two common threads in the relationship between poverty and food insecurity lie in two entities that affect one’s economic standing: the economy and the government. Economies and governments are two vastly different creatures altogether, yet they are intimately intertwined. Where one is the resulting phenomenon from business and transactions, the government is formed in mind with the purpose of providing for and protecting certain rights and liberties of the people. Among those responsibilities is the mandate to ensure that the basic needs of its citizens are met. There are departments for education, health and safety, as well as agencies that work to ensure that people are fed. But citizens may also call upon the government for aid if they lack the means to procure certain necessities. This is the heart of social welfare and government aid, and this notion is of particular import to the poor, because while improving the economy may improve their state of food security in the long term, government aid is essential to providing more immediate help, especially when the economy fails to do so. Food is a right, one that must be protected and ensured by government, for it is the right that precedes all others. For what use is freedom of speech to one who is starving? Does the Declaration of Independence not count the right to life among a person’s unalienable rights? In this way, the government is the primary institution in society tasked with ensuring and safeguarding the people’s welfare. Thus, when government fails to help people already on hard times, it must adjust and improve itself in order to provide for its people sufficiently.  To that end, Tarasuk and Vogt find the high correlation between Ontario’s food insecure with reliance on social assistance as representative of the “inadequacy of welfare incomes to cover estimates of basic living costs,” signaling the need to improve upon and expand social assistance (186).

Government inadequacy and the lack of sufficient welfare as factors contributing to food insecurity can be observed worldwide. In his article, “Food Insecurity and the Conflict Trap”, from Our World 2.0, a periodical published by the United Nations University, Mark Notaras notes the importance of the role governing bodies play in food security, saying that “national governments and the international community can provide food assistance that restores peace and builds social capital.” Governments are institutions that must first and foremost be invested in the safety and well-being of the people. Among other responsibilities, they are tasked with ensuring that the people are fed. But what if they fail in this endeavor? What happens when governments do not give the necessary aid and stability to ensure food security? The answer is simple: the poor go hungry.

Take, for instance, a study conducted by Ellen Messer and Marc J. Cohen that notes the prevalence of food insecurity in war-torn regions. Messer and Cohen highlight how, in 2004, the FAO found that 71% of the Democratic Republic of the Congo was food insecure, as was 68% of Burundi, and 27% of the Sudan, all of which are regions where the governing bodies are either too corrupt or locked in some sort of conflict to be anywhere near capable of providing for the needs of their people. Messer and Cohen, like Tweeten, also quote Amartya Sen to say that “conflict causes food insecurity by reducing food production, entitlement to produce or access food, and human welfare and capabilities, through the destruction of the environment, health and healthcare, education and other social infrastructure” (qtd. in Messer and Cohen). While that point touches on all four of the basic factors of food security, Messer and Cohen emphasize the role of governments, and how conflict renders them incapable of providing for the poor and their most vulnerable citizens. Conflict produces, among other things, political instability, which in turn undermines that ability of government to provide the necessary social aid and welfare to stem food insecurity among those who need it most, such as the poor.

Now, some may say that this problem could never be found in a developed, Western nation, since most of the governments of these nations tend to be politically stable and, thus, able to provide welfare. However, that belies the point. Political instability simply hampers a government’s ability to provide sufficient welfare and social aid. But functioning governments can still fail to provide the necessary amount of aid by not providing enough. One need only look at the United States to find an example of this. Craig Gundersen and James P. Ziliak studied childhood food insecurity in America and, naturally, found that “poverty strongly predicts both whether a child enters food insecurity and whether food insecurity persists.” However, they also note factors other than the economy that contribute to food insecurity. For example, while they highlight the increase of children in food insecure households during the Great Recession, they also found that “food-insecurity rates among children were high even during good economic times,” citing the three years of robust economic growth prior to the Great Recession, where “approximately 17 percent of U.S children lived in food-insecure households” (Gundersen and Ziliak). So the question remains: how does a functioning government and a thriving economy still allow for food insecurity? To that end, Gundersen and ZIliak closely examined U.S. welfare programs that help feed the needy, particularly the USDA’s Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP). Gundersen and Ziliak note how SNAP and programs like it have been proven to work in the past, but are currently experiencing inefficiencies due to antiquated models of aid and recent downturns in the economy. Notably, they criticize the way in which SNAP calculates the amount of aid a household receives, wherein the more income a household makes, the less aid they receive. For example, SNAP’s “30 percent rule”, wherein families are expected to pay about one-third of their income for food, was created during the 1950’s when the official poverty line was first established (Gundersen and Ziliak). They contend that SNAP must reorganize and refine its model in accordance with modern costs and incomes (Gundersen and Ziliak). Research has also found lower SNAP participation among eligible working people, again, in large part because income minimizes SNAP benefits (Gundersen and Ziliak). SNAP’s formula discourages participation, hampering the benefits of either livelihood or SNAP aid, as households are forced to balance and weigh the two. Why choose SNAP when earning the maximum benefit can only come from not having a living wage? Workers on SNAP are forced into a precarious limbo between getting a decent wage and getting help to put food on the table. Where most would expect that increases in wage would improve the poor’s state of food security, the current SNAP formula turns out to discourage such economic growth. Earning a better wage brings with it the prospect of losing one’s SNAP benefits. But because SNAP relies on an antiquated formula to determine need and aid, reaching such a threshold would mean receiving no aid and having to rely on a wage only considered adequate during the 1950’s. Thus, to many, the prospect of upward mobility is undercut by certain deficiencies and lack of change in the SNAP program. In this way, SNAP effectively punishes much-needed incremental income growth among households at greatest risk of food insecurity. Gundersen and Ziliak, again, suggest revisiting the SNAP formula increasing the discount of earned income in SNAP to “encourage more work among the SNAP population.” This way, those around the poverty line will be free to work and earn more, thereby empowering their economic access to food in the long-term, while ensuring the necessary aid to help them in the short term.

Knowing that lack of both economic development and government aid exacerbate poverty in such a way that also enhances food insecurity, one can see how Tweeten claims that “alleviating food insecurity means alleviating poverty” (476). In this way, the solution to the problem lies in the two entities that can directly impact poverty and food security: the economy and the government. However, a capitalist economy is more fickle and unpredictable than the other, owing to its nature rooted in business and profit. The economy has no moral obligation to feed the poor or ensure the well-being of the public. It is predicated solely on the notion of profit to ensure that money can flow. But sometimes the flow of money fails to reach those who need help the most. To that end, it is the government that must take up the work of empowering the poor and fighting food insecurity. The government, unlike the economy, does have the obligation to ensure the welfare of its citizens. It also possesses the authority and power to do so. But it must provide the necessary amount of aid in doing so, and not the bare minimum of years gone by. Expanding welfare programs, revisiting the measures and systems of older ones, and creating new ones as needed, will ensure that a proven means of fighting food insecurity does not grow obsolete or limp-wristed.

The problem of economic development must also fall to the government, rather than the market. While the economy may be the tool with which to eliminate poverty, it cannot wield itself. Again, the economy is, at its core, deaf to the cries and lamentations of the populace. But the government can assert itself and keep the economy in check, using its power to eliminate poverty. Economic laws and regulations must be enacted to in order to prevent another Great Recession and allow the government to help a nation recover and empower its poor. Regulation of industry ensures fair play in business and allows the poor and at-risk to also have the chance of reaping the fruits of a thriving economy. The United Nations and the international community must also do the same, ensuring that prosperity and the natural right to food reaches all people, especially in developing countries, where progress fighting poverty and food insecurity are desperately needed.

Now, some may argue that to focus on poverty, economic access, economies and governments is to ignore the FAO’s other factors of food security: availability, utilization and stability of the other factors (UN, “An Introduction”). They may contend that solving food insecurity requires more than just programs to feed people and laws to rein in the economy. However, these criticisms fail to recognize why poverty and food insecurity are so closely intertwined. Again, as Tweeten notes, improved global supply and production have allowed food to be widely available, but people still starve because they do not have economic access to them (Tweeten 475-6). Access also supersedes the factor of utilization and nutritional value. For what good is a nutritious and wholesome meal if one cannot get to it? Thus, tackling the problem of economic access to food, through meaningful and effective government aid, and ensuring economic growth and prosperity in order to eliminate poverty, stand as the most viable and impactful way of tackling food insecurity.

In her 1970 essay “The Changing Significance of Food”, renowned cultural anthropologist and activist Margaret Mead once wrote of the dilemma of world hunger, saying that “If this hunger is not met now, we disqualify ourselves, we cripple ourselves, to deal with world problems” (176). The promise of a better tomorrow continues to drive progress and innovation in the 21st century. But for many, that promise has yet to come true. Countless poor around the world struggle to deal with hunger, suffering a fate not of their own doing. One can see how certain entities/bodies, such as governments and economies, have either failed to help them or have grown callous towards them. Yet those very same entities/bodies can be the key to eliminating the great anachronism of our time. For how can we truly say that humanity has achieved its brighter future when, in fact, it still struggles to feed itself? Humankind owes it to itself to eliminate poverty, and thus, food insecurity. In doing so, humanity can then confidently say that it has taken those crucial steps towards the brighter tomorrow it longs for: a world without hunger.



Works Cited

Asefa, Sisay. “Rural Poverty, Food Insecurity and Environmental Degradation in Ethiopia: A Case Study from South Central Ethiopia” International Journal of Ethiopian Studies 1.1 (2003): 59–89. JSTOR. Web. 1 May 2016.

Gundersen, Craig, and James P. Ziliak. "Childhood Food Insecurity In the U.S.: Trends, Causes, and Policy Options." The Future of Children Fall 2014: n. pag. Academic OneFile. Web. 7 Apr. 2016.

Mead, Margaret. “The Changing Significance of Food.” Food Matters: A Bedford Spotlight Reader. Ed. Holly Bauer. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2014. 166-176. Print.

Messer, Ellen, and Marc J. Cohen. "Conflict, Food Insecurity and Globalization." Food, Culture & Society 10.2 (2007): n. pag. Academic OneFile. Web. 5 Apr. 2016.

Notaras, Mark. "Food Insecurity and the Conflict Trap." Our World 2.0. The United Nations University, 31 Aug. 2011. Web. 4 Apr. 2016. 14 Oct. 2014.

Tarasuk, Valerie, and Janet Vogt. “Household Food Insecurity in Ontario”. Canadian Journal of Public Health / Revue Canadienne de Sante'e Publique 100.3 (2009): 184–188. JSTOR. Web. 14 May 2016.

Tweeten, Luther. “The Economics of Global Food Security”. Review of Agricultural Economics 21.2 (1999): 473–488. JSTOR. Web. 1 May 2016.

United Nations. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. “An Introduction to the Basic Concepts of Food Security.” Rome: Palazzo FAO, 2008. Web. 15 May 2016.

United Nations. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. “State of Food Insecurity in the World: In Brief”. Rome: Palazzo FAO, 2015. Web. 15 May 2016.

Patrick Reyes

The breadth of research topics open to me for the ENGL110 essay were both liberating and a bit overwhelming. The freedom to explore any topic brought with it the burden of choice. Yet having grown up in the Philippines, I felt compelled to give voice to what life was like for many back home. For many Filipinos, hunger is part of life, as it is for people around the world. Indeed, the revelation that hunger still casts its long shadow in a modern country like America was particularly jarring. Thus, I chose to try to find at least one of the explanations to this problem, if only to find a solution to a troubling question such as this.

What was once intended to be a lone comparison between the Philippines and the United States of America grew in scope to countries the world over. The trends and parallels could not be ignored. Further research brought me to the United Nations and the international effort to both understand and solve the problem of hunger, as well as the experts that have examined current trends and historical precedents in order to isolate certain root causes and offer specific solutions. Many of these lines of research ultimately brought me to the issue of global economics of food, thus providing the nexus of my argument.

The research and the essay brought with them an element of urgency. That hunger still exists in the world has shaken my faith and rendered me in dire need of an answer. I wrote with the knowledge that, while I may not have the ultimate answer to hunger, by grounding the problem to the concepts of economics and poverty, at the very least one can see that hunger is a problem that can be solved so long as we tackle it from the right angle.

Professor Frank Hillson

What do food selection, preparation, and distribution tell us about people?  What insight does food provide into the politics and mores of a community, culture, or country?  This honors English 110 course, “You Are What You Eat: Food and Culture,” used food as a mechanism to examine our society and our world.  Courtney Zozulia and Patrick Reyes’ culinary journey began with an exploratory in-class workshop where they investigated a topic of personal interest. (This food concept became the foundation for their research paper.)  The idea was then discussed in a five-page exploratory essay, which was later fine-tuned during a one-on-one conference with the instructor.  Several more workshops helped to round out their discussion. The students’ arguments were then showcased in a five-minute PowerPoint presentation where they received input from their peers during Q & A.  Courtney’s essay investigated the cleverness with which western supermarkets entice consumers to buy food (and more food than needed) in “Science of the Supermarket: An Analysis of Consumerism in the Developed World.” Patrick took a global look at food, or lack thereof, in “A Greater Price to Pay: Poverty and Food Insecurity,” addressing the plight of the poor and their access to proper nutrition.  Overall, they spent about two months brainstorming, researching, composing, rewriting, and editing to produce two insightful essays.

Paper Prompt PDF