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Global Malnutrition and the Politics of Food

Whether they are starving or eating too much, children around the world are malnourished. A full belly doesn’t necessarily mean that a child is getting proper nutrition from the food that they eat. Obese children are just as nutritionally deficient as children who have bloated bellies from hunger. The result is a global generation of unhealthy children who will experience a shorter life expectancy than normal from complications with their health and related diseases. The double burden of malnutrition is seen in both a complete lack of access to food and an overabundance of unhealthy foods.

A recent World Health Organization (WHO) report stated that combating five major health factors could eliminate millions of premature deaths. Among those top five is childhood nutrition. Lacking nutritious food has serious implications for health, but consuming too much food without nutritional value, which contributes to obesity, is more likely to lead to a premature death. For the first time in 15 years, children in the US have a lower life expectancy than their parents. By the same token, children in countries defined as “developing” have faced low life expectancies for many years, but what they eat (or don’t eat) is less likely to kill them. Who would have imagined that being overweight is more likely to kill you than being underweight?

On the flip side of childhood nutrition is the near complete lack of access to food in developing countries. There were any number of crises this past year that qualified the “need” for food aid from “developed” countries. Floods, earthquakes, droughts, famines, etc. – but what is the state of food aid? Is it excellent nutritious assistance in difficult times? Bill Easterly and the Aid Watch blog ask: “Can the story on US food aid get any worse?,” noting that the US continues to support relief agencies that use a corn-soy food blend that doesn’t even meet the 1960s international nutrition standards of food aid. Children in developing countries don’t necessarily die from a lack of nutritious food, but rather from the diseases that attack their weakened immune systems. The food we eat is a first line of defense by keeping the rest of our body systems healthy. Some of the best examples of the importance of food and health come from Paul Farmer, who often says that, “the treatment for hunger is food.” Many times food is overlooked as a critical treatment in health crises, which makes it that much more important to invest in nutritious alternatives for food aid and support local farmers around the world.

Unfortunately here in the US, corporations have a firm grip on what we eat. There are a small number of major factory farming corporations that produce our food. They use coercive actions and their money to keep control of farmers and the food industry. This hurts our families and communities here in the US and contributes to the nutritional inadequacy of what Americans eat, but it also has far reaching implications in developing countries. Because of the control by US corporations of the food industry and the US government’s subsidies for farmers, food prices have been rising steadily around the world. This impact is hitting small farmers in developing countries hardest as they struggle to find markets to sell their produce and support their families. These small farmers can’t compete with US farmers who are government subsidized or the US corporations who are mass producing and shutting them out. Even as people in developing countries struggle to buy food to eat, one in six Americans are struggling with hunger. This is largely a result of the economic downturn and has affected more than just those already considered poor in the US. It is estimated that nearly one billion people do not have access to a secure source of food around the globe.

While the fact that many Americans struggle with food security is shocking, the spike in rates of obesity demonstrates the pressing need for communities to rethink how they eat and live. Obesity gives a blatant visual representation of how much control we have lost when it comes to our food. The WHO states that “globesity” is spreading across the globe and millions will suffer if we don’t make changes. A recent study conducted by Wayne State University showed that one third of infants in the US are obese or at risk for obesity. This allows us to easily assume that an obese infant will become an obese adult. Hunger and food security are extremely important issues when it comes to talking about health and nutrition. Many who suffer being underweight have suffered through natural disasters, but the immediate threat to children and the global population is the man-made disaster of being overweight.

Thankfully there are many people who are working to fix the food industry, support local farmers, and promote healthy eating to children in schools. President Obama recently signed the Child Nutrition Bill to increase access to healthy foods in schools. Where there have been numerous policy barriers nationally and internationally, this is a step in the right direction to bring policies in line with the health needs of our global population. We must commit to supporting the basic health of our children if we care about a building a healthy future.

About Alex B. Hill

Currently a Community Health Worker in Detroit, Alex is completing a Masters in Medical Anthropology. Alex holds a Bachelors degree in International Relations and African Studies from Michigan State University with a specialization in International Development and Social Movements. Alex founded and organizes the non-profit, SCOUT BANANA, a cooperative coalition of student groups focused on supporting increased access to health care in Africa. The organization has worked with seven different projects in six different African countries serving over 700,000 people by raising $200,000 and mobilizing 60,000 students. As well as advocating for health access issues across Africa, Alex has worked with a number of grassroots health projects, including: HIV/AIDS education and testing in South Africa, community health assessments in Ghana, and emergency services in Uganda. In 2008, Alex co-founded with three other students the Articulate Journal to give young people a voice in international development and health care. Alex believes strongly in community-based development as most effective and that young people are the key drivers of social change.

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