By Denny Macko, December 2003


Food and eating are indispensable to sustain one’s life. Throughout history, man has struggled against hunger. This project analyzes the problem of hunger in the world: the causes of its existence and of its prevalence in the Third World, and suggests some solutions to overcome it.  The project wrestles with the dilemma of Christians facing the problem of starvation. It examines the position of the Bible and asks the question, is there a divine message in the painful reality of world hunger for us? 

Hunger seems too abstract a notion; however, hungry children, hungry crowds are shockingly real. A person who has never experienced what it means to be hungry will perhaps never truly understand what hunger means. Affluent people rarely speak of hunger while watching their favorite baseball team eat their hotdogs or popcorn. Can they imagine the game without food? First World countries have enjoyed abundant food for so long that it is difficult for them to comprehend hunger.


Hunger exists today despite modern technologies and scientific development. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), there are 815 million undernourished people in the world: 777 million in the developing countries, 27 million in countries in transition and 11 million in the industrialized countries. About 96% of the world’s farmers live in developing countries. Despite growing urbanization, 2/3 of the world’s poor live in rural areas. In the rural areas of the developing world, close to 900 million people live on less than $1 a day (

Poverty and hunger does not belong only to the Third World. The most recent statistics made by the USDA in 2002 claim that only

eighty-nine percent of American households were food secure throughout the entire year 2002, meaning that they had access, at all times, to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members. The remaining households were food insecure at least some time during that year. The prevalence of food insecurity rose from 10.7 percent in 2001 to 11.1 percent (12.1 million) in 2002, and the prevalence of food insecurity with hunger rose from 3.3 percent to 3.5 percent.

About one-third of food-insecure households (3.8 million, or 3.5 percent of all U.S. households) were food insecure to the extent that one or more household members were hungry, at least some time during the year, because they could not afford enough food. The other two-thirds of food-insecure households obtained enough food to avoid hunger, using a variety of coping strategies such as eating less varied diets, participating in Federal food assistance programs, or getting emergency food from community food pantries. Children were hungry at times during the year in 265,000 households (0.7 percent of households with children) because the household lacked sufficient money or other resources for food. (

In order to personify those statistics, an American journalist, Loretta Schwartz-Nobel, wrote a book named Growing Up Empty in which she described her discovery of hunger in the US, called the “hidden epidemic.”

We wonder about the cause of hunger that is concentrated in the Third World: is it overpopulation, or women’s role in society, or deficiency in food production, perhaps inadequate weather conditions and natural disasters, wars and military conflicts or government polices and the impact of present international economic system? All these factors play a pivotal role in hunger, but let us not forget history. Have the Third World countries always been poor?

Suzanne C. Toton, in her book World Hunger, reflects on the studies of Brazilian economist Theotonio Dos Santos on the relationships between pour and rich nations. Analyzing history, Toton holds that poverty was forced upon the Third Word countries by rich nations. She summarizes:

…the Third World has not always been poor. It was made poor by the mercantilist powers of Europe seeking trade advantages, precious stones and metals, and tropical produce. Later the industrial capitalist nation sought new sources of raw materials and markets to feed their own economic development. After the Second World War those same powers institutionalized their own advantages by controlling and manipulating the international systems of trade and aid to their own advantage. Finally, multinational corporations have joined in the exploitation of the Third World. Thus it is impossible to say that the poverty of the Third World is inextricably linked to the economic growth of the First World. Underdevelopment is nothing less than a by-product of development. It is a by-product of the very process that produced wealth for the First World. (Toton 23)

Frances Moore Lappé and Joseph Collins hold similar views in Food First. For Lappé, hunger and underdevelopment are intertwined process.

To answer the question ‘why hunger?’ is counterproductive to simply describe the conditions in an underdeveloped country today. For these conditions, whether they are the degree of malnutrition, the levels of agricultural production, or even the country’s ecological endowment, are not static facts – they are not “givens.” They are rather the results of an ongoing historical process. (Lappé 76)

Lappé also claims that the Third World countries were forced to be poor. The force has to be a target of change, because force creates the conditions. To focus on conditions is not sufficient. She did not believe that these forces were conspiratorial, but were a result of

a colonial order in which people with the advantage of considerable power sought their own self-interest, often arrogantly believing they were acting in the interest of the people whose lives they were destroying. (Lappé 77)

She analyzes how colonizers used a variety of techniques to achieve their own interests, for instance the use of physical or economical force to compel the local population to produce cash crops instead of their own food, and then turn the crops over to the colonizers for export. According to Lappé, colonizers used taxation, marketing boards or took the native land for their own benefit (Lappé 78).

One of these strategies was taxation. It was more effective then physical force. The colonial administrations simply charged taxes. Taxes were on domestic animals, land, houses, and even on the people themselves. Because tax has to be paid in the coin of the realm, the peasant had only two choices, grow crops, which he could sell, or work for colonizer. In order to survive, homeland people expanded production of the cash crops and neglected the farming food for themselves. If they refused or could not pay the taxies, the colonizer took their land (Lappé 79).

The second method was marketing boards. They emerge in Africa in the 1930s. The marketing boards established the purchasing prices of the crops. The marketing boards were unreasonable for the peasant. They were very low, while the world market prices were rising. The peasants did not receive adequate amounts of money for their harvest. The profit that the colonizer made went to the royal treasury (Lappé 80).

Another strategy of the colonizer was taking over the best agricultural land. The land was used for export crop plantation.  The vigorous workers were then forced to leave the village fields to work as slaves or for very low wages on plantations. Even more, because the peasants were forced to produce only cash crops, their food was imported and its price was intentionally held down to keep the peasants out of the production of their own food. Thus the colonies remained ever dependent on the mother countries (Lappé 85).

The result of these colonial techniques was the state of underdevelopment of countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America – today called the Third World countries.

Colonialism may be dead. But it left an indelible imprint on every society it touched. The effects of colonialism could not be wiped clean simply by a proclamation of independence. (Lappé 86)

The situation today is not very different. Economic policies today also intensify inequality between rich and poor countries. According to international development organization Oxfam Canada:

One of the most destructive economic policies for developing countries are SAPs – Structural Adjustment Programs, imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) since the 1980s to ensure poor countries pay their foreign debts. Under SAPs, recipient countries had to open their economic markets by allowing greater foreign ownership and investment in the country; devaluing their domestic currency; reducing government spending on health, education and agriculture; and lowering tariffs on agricultural products. (

The food security equation

Phillips Foster in his book The World Food Problem demonstrates how food insecurity and food production are strongly influenced by a diversity of factors. He explains it using the food security equation developed by Anderson and Roumasset for the household level. This equation emphasizes balance between the food production and the purchase power. As the author says, “ in its simple form, the food security equation compares the value of the food production deficit with the income and liquid assets that household has available to purchase” (Foster 96).

Value of food production
deficit in a household (HH)

Income and liquid assets
available to purchase food

The left side of the equation refers to food, which is needed to provide the household with enough food. It is influenced by the families’ ability to produce some food at home. “The value of that deficit is simply the minimum cost of purchasing such a supply of food.”(13) The right side refers to income, which helps the family to handle the food production deficit. The household is food secure when the right side is at least the same or bigger than the left side of the equitation. Further, Foster divides the left side of the equation into two components, which influence the food production deficit, food purchase requirement and the price of food. Then he relates household food consumption requirements and household food production under the food purchase requirement, so the equation is (Foster 96).


When the household’s food production is high, the food purchase requirement is less.  When the household’s food consumption requirement is small then the food purchase requirement is smaller also (Foster 97).

In the next step, Foster shows separately the factors that affect every component of the food security equation. The following is a brief list of others factors the influences the above equation.

*          The first element, household food consumption requirement, includes age, number of people in household, health of individuals, and pregnancy. 

*          The household food production, the second element, is influenced by an amount of land, technology, capital, education of farmer. This production is directly related to the government policies in place, namely: tariffs, price controls, export taxes, input subsidies, etc.

*          The third element is price of food. The price is influenced by the size of population, the income of that population, production quantity, government policies, etc.

*          The last factor in the equation is income and liquid assets available to purchase food. It involves a complex set including education of members of household, capital position of household, land position, employment opportunities, attitudes toward work, transportation cost to and from work, and health (Foster 100). 

Arms Conflicts

Arms conflict is also seen as one of the major factor responsible for hunger around world. The following statistics shows that in areas where conflicts are occurring, there is a huge rate of displacements, malnourishment, lack of effective food distribution and starvation.

Conflict is one of the most common causes of food insecurity. The displacement of people and disruption of agricultural production and food distribution leave tens of millions of people at risk of hunger and famine. War and civil strife were cited as major causes in 15 of the 44 countries that suffered exceptional food emergencies during 2001 and the first quarter of 2002. Conversely, food insecurity may lead to or exacerbate conflict, particularly when compounded by other shocks and stresses. The interface between food insecurity and conflict has critical implications for food security and conflict prevention programmes alike. 

One of the most direct effects of conflict on food security is the displacement of people. In 2001, there were more than 12 million refugees, 25 million internally displaced people (IDPs) and an unknown number of people trapped in combat zones. Most of these people need temporary food assistance until they can return to their homes and fields or find new livelihoods. More than 30 percent of the recipients of food aid from the World Food Programme in 2000 were refugees, IDPs and returnees.

Conflict is also a major cause of structural food insecurity. Armed conflict may prevent farmers from producing food and may cut off access to food by disrupting transport, trade and markets. According to FAO, conflict in sub-Saharan Africa resulted in losses of almost US$52 billion in agricultural output between 1970 and 1997, a figure equivalent to 75 percent of all official development assistance received by the conflict-affected countries. Estimated losses in agricultural output for all developing countries averaged US$4.3 billion per year - enough to have raised the food intake of 330 million under nourished people to mini mum required levels.

Conflict, often combined with drought, triggered six of the seven major African famines since 1980. Early warning and response usually prevent famine arising from drought and other natural disasters. But in war zones, lack of security and disruption of transport and social net works impede delivery of relief aid. (FOA, )


The World Food Programme, in its annual report from 2002, recognizes AIDS as an another cause of food insecurity.

HIV/AIDS hits the most productive members of society. It reduces long-term agricultural productivity and overwhelms community caring capacities for orphans and the sick. Women are disproportionately affected, in part because of their unequal social and economic status vis-à-vis men and also because physiologically they are more vulnerable to infection. In Africa, the effect of HIV/AIDS on women is all the more devastating, given the fact that eight out of every ten farmers are women. In sub-Saharan Africa 58 percent of those infected are women, increasing their burden as caretakers, breadwinners and providers of food. At the same time, the number of AIDS orphans and child-headed households has risen dramatically. These factors aggravate the effects of humanitarian emergencies, leading to very serious long-term consequences for food security. Southern Africa was the first major food emergency in which high rates of HIV/AIDS played a key role in exacerbating food insecurity and malnutrition. (WFP 2002,

Theological reflection

According to our analysis of the causes of hunger, the greediness of the rich and the powerlessness of the poor are major factors contributing to hunger and poverty in the Third World countries. How can hunger be seen in the light of faith? It could be seen as insensitivity to dignity, love and justice, which also can be seen in the light of spiritual poverty, and insensitivity to human needs.

Poverty and hunger are the manifestations of the destruction human dignity.

The root reason for human dignity lies in man's call to communion with God. From the very circumstance of his origin man is already invited to converse with God. For man would not exist were he not created by Gods love and constantly preserved by it; and he cannot live fully according to truth unless he freely acknowledges that love and devotes himself to His Creator. (Gaudium at Spes 19) 18 

Every person is valuable and, as Kant says, is an end in himself and can not be used as a means for another person. Human beings are God’s creation and they are created in the image of God. (Gn 1:27) This means that, human dignity is derived from God who respects and values man in his image. Moreover, God also values human beings as an adoptive member of the trinity. God invites people to live in the way as the trinity does. By keeping the communion with God, people will preserve their dignity.

Poverty and hunger can be seen as a manifestation of the break of love in the relationship with our neighbor (Toton 100). “Love for God and neighbor is the first and greatest commandment. Sacred Scripture, however, teaches us that the love of God cannot be separated from love of neighbor: ‘If there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.... Love therefore is the fulfillment of the Law” (Rom. 13:9-10; cf. 1 John 4:20). It is a love that seeks the good of the other. For men growing daily more dependent on one another, and to a world becoming more unified every day, this truth proves to be of paramount importance (Gaudium at Spes 24). For the human beings achieve self-realization not in isolation, but in interaction with others (Gaudium at Spes 32). God invites people to live in the way as the trinity does.

The liberation theologian, Juan Luis Segundo sees God as a society:

The Christian God is love. But simply or not so much a love that unites two people and separates them from the world and time; that would be a false love. Rather, the love that fashions human society in history. The love which, never since the first stages in the evolution of matter, has systematically broken up and broken through every simplistic synthesis in its quest for more costly but more total synthesis in which originality would be fully freed and a “We,” such as all our “We’s” on earth struggle and would like to be. Despite all our twisted and distorted imaged, the God that Jesus revealed to us a God who is a society. (Toton 96)

Poverty and hunger can be seen as a manifestation of the lack of justice in the relationship with our neighbor.

Fill the earth and subdue it’ (Gn1:18). This teaches us that the whole of creation is for man, that he has been charged to give it meaning by his intelligent activity, to complete and perfect it by his own efforts and to his own advantage. Now if the earth truly was created to provide man with the necessities of life and the tools for his own progress, it follows that every man has the right to glean what he needs from the earth. (Populorum Progressio 22)

Creation is a gift from God to all humanity, not to be reserved for the benefit of few individuals. The life of every human being is valuable and every human being has the right to live. Food is essential to maintain one’s life. Why should some people starve to death while others have plenty to eat and waste? There is enough food for everybody. (Economic Justice for All, 40)

Jesus identified himself with the poor. (Mt 25: 31-46)  To enter into the world of the poor is to enter into a relationship with him. Jesus Christ invites us to enter into this relationship and asks us to be active. Compassion is good, but not good enough. Effective action has to be involved; the same kind of action as reflected in the parable of the Good Samaritan. (Mk 12: 28-34) The action is effective when the real situation is recognized. According to Gustavo Gutierrez, a liberation theologian, the Christian must enter into the suffering of the poor and make it his/her own. The Christian must identify himself/herself with their neighbor so that s/he can experience the economic, political, and social situation of the poor (Toton 98).


Analysis of the causes of poverty and hunger shows that underdeveloped countries are mainly result of the structural injustice of the system. It is the system

Which considers profit as the key motive for economic progress, competition as the supreme law of economics, and private ownership of the means of production as an absolute right that has no limits and carries no corresponding social obligation. (Populorum Progressio 26)

Pope Paul VI offers these suggestions:

What applies to national economies and to highly developed nations must also apply to trade relations between rich and poor nations. Indeed, competition should not be eliminated from trade transactions; but it must be kept within limits so that it operates justly and fairly, and thus becomes a truly human endeavor.

Now in trade relations between the developing and the highly developed economies there is a great disparity in their overall situation and in their freedom of action. In order that international trade be human and moral, social justice requires that it restore to the participants a certain equality of opportunity. To be sure, this equality will not be attained at once, but we must begin to work toward it now by injecting a certain amount of equality into discussions and price talks.

Here again international agreements on a broad scale can help a great deal. They could establish general norms for regulating prices, promoting production facilities, and favoring certain infant industries. Isn’t it plain to everyone that such attempts to establish greater justice in international trade would be of great benefit to the developing nations, and that they would produce lasting results. (Populorum Progressio 61)

The main responsibility for bringing change into the Third World and into the structure that keeps the poor in a desperate situation is often created by the rich and powerful. They have the power to transform the structure and influence the future without the force of arms.


the Church considers it to be undoubtedly important to build up structures which are more human, more just, more respectful of the rights of the person and less oppressive and less enslaving, but she is conscious that the best structures and the most idealized systems soon become inhuman if the inhuman inclinations of the human heart are not made wholesome, if those who live in these structures or who rule them do not undergo a conversion of heart and of outlook. (Evangelii Nuntiandi 36)

Finally, I am convinced that poverty is an impediment to a viable life. We as Christians will have to do all we can to minimize poverty. As Christians, we will have to use the resources at our disposal to affect the social, political and economic structures by calling for change and revaluation of the existing policies.


Works Cited

Economic Research Service/USDA. “Household Food Security in the United States.” 2002.  11. Dec. 2003

Foster, Philips and Leathers, Howard D. “The World Food Problem: Tackling the Causes of Undernutrition in the third World.” Boulder: Lynne Riener Publishers, 1999.

FOA. “The State of Food Insecurity in the world 2002.” Rome: The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2002. 11. Dec. 2003  

Lappé, Frances M. and Collins, Joseph. “Food First: Beyond the Myth of Scarcity.” Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1977.

National Conference of Catholic Bishops. “Economic Justice for All: Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy.” November 18, 1986. 11. Dec. 2003


Pope Paul VI. Populorum Progressio: On Promoting the Development of Peoples.” March 26, 1967. 11. Dec. 2003

Pope Paul VI. “Evangelii Nuntiandi: On Evangelization in the Modern World,” December 8, 1975. 11. Dec. 2003

Saini, Angela. “Food and facts.” New Internationalist Jan/Feb 2003. 11. Dec. 2003

Second Vatican Council. “Gaudium at Spes: Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.” December 7, 1965. 11. Dec. 2003

Toton, Suzanne C. “World Hunger: The responsibility of Christian Education.” Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1982.

WFP. “World Food Programme: Annual Report 2002.” Rome: Communications Division World Food Programme, 2002. 11. Dec. 2003