What Do the Poorest Eat?

By David Braughton

As a result of the war in Ukraine, climate shocks, economic instability, political conflict, and global pandemic, nations around the world are facing what the U.N. has called “a global hunger crisis of unprecedented proportions.”

A midwife feeds a malnourished infant at a site in northern Côte d’Ivoire through a BGR project with partner Helen Keller International (HKI). Photo courtesy of HKI.

Imagine living on less than $1.90 per day or $693.50 annually, the amount used by the World Bank and much of the international community to measure “extreme poverty.” Not that the world’s very poor have $1.90 in their pocket to spend. The poverty metric is based on consumption: a rough measure of what “subsistence” looks like for persons struggling to find enough food to eat, clean water to drink, shelter, health care, and other essentials.1

By contrast, in the U.S. per capita consumption of goods and services in 2020 was $42,645, or $116.80 per day. Even our pets fare better than the poorest of the poor. According to the ASPCA, the average American pet owner spends between $700 and $1,100 annually for food, health care, and sundries for their dog or cat, between $6.50 and $406.50 above the World Bank’s definition of extreme poverty.

The World Bank estimates that there are between 657 and 689 million people today who meet the definition of “extremely poor.” These individuals make up the vast majority of the world’s hungry, the estimated 720 to 811 million persons who the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) determined faced chronic hunger in 2020. Tragically, the number of hungry persons has increased in the past three years, and today, as a result of COVID, the war in Ukraine, climate shocks, and political unrest, the total may be closer to a billion people.

To put things in perspective, the average moderately active adult male needs 2,500 calories a day and the average moderately active female 2,000 calories to maintain their weight. The FAO reports that for persons who are chronically hungry, the daily caloric intake is closer to 1,600 to 2,100 calories, a shortfall of 100 to 400 calories. Compounding the problem is that most of these calories come in the form of starches, such as rice, wheat, corn, or other grains, leaving the poorest of the poor with not only a caloric deficit but a nutritional deficit as well. If the goal is health rather than mere survival, people require not mere calories but a balanced diet, that is, a diet including a combination of proteins, fats, carbohydrates, and micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals. According to the FAO, in 2019 the high cost of nutritious food coupled with persistent high levels of income inequality put healthy diets out of reach for around 3 billion people, in every region of the world. The figure for 2020 is expected to be still higher.

Most of the persons living in abject poverty are not dying of starvation, however, and the presence of chronic hunger is not always obvious. This is because our bodies respond to an inadequate diet by slowing down physical activity and, in the case of children, by reducing growth. In addition to increasing susceptibility to disease, chronic hunger has other negative consequences. It means that children may be listless and unable to concentrate in school, that mothers may give birth to underweight babies, and that adults may lack the energy to fulfill their potential.

While in numerical terms more people are chronically hungry in Asia and the Pacific, the most serious situation is in sub-Saharan Africa, where in 46 percent of the countries, the undernourished have a daily deficit of more than 300 calories a day.

So how do those in the poorest countries get by? What do they eat, if they are fortunate enough to eat at all?

To get some idea of this, consider the following three countries: Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere; the Republic of Congo, one of the poorest countries in the world, where the gross national income per capita in 2020 was $550; and South Sudan, where fully 65 percent of its population of 12.8 million people currently face a severe food crisis, the consequence of political conflict, drought, rising food prices, and now the war in Ukraine.

In Haiti, all a typical family will eat are rice and beans—but only if mother or father are able to work that day. If a parent is unable to work or sell homemade items, chances are the family will go hungry. According to USAID, 2.5 million Haitians, or 22 percent of the population, are currently facing acute food insecurity.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, more than 27 million people out of 108 million—one-quarter of the nation’s population—face crisis-level or emergency-level food insecurity. Most families subsist on cassava or yuka, supplemented by insects such as caterpillars, crickets, or grasshoppers, along with an occasional banana or local vegetable, but violence, disease, and a crumbling infrastructure have put even these meager offerings beyond the reach of many.

Over half of the population of South Sudan stands on the precipice of starvation, a result of war, poverty, and disease. Drought and insect infestations have decimated the maize and sorghum crops used to make kirsa (flatbread) and dura(cooked maze and millet), two staples of the country. Without food assistance, many families cannot cope, yet due to funding shortages, the World Food Programme has recently had to suspend some of its aid, putting the future of over 1.7 million people at certain risk.

The Borgen Project asserts that ending world hunger by 2030 would cost $265 billion per year in additional expenditures. By way of comparison, the U.S. spent $668 billion in 2018 on its defense budget and $394 billion in interest payments on the national debt. This means that the resources are there, if we have the political will to reorder our priorities. So what is stopping us?

What is stopping us is the inability or outright refusal to recognize our common humanity: that the plight of others, no matter what they look like, where they live, what their religious beliefs, politics, or lifestyle may be, directly or indirectly affects us; that our survival as a species and the survival of the world depend upon a concern for and commitment to the welfare of all living beings, not just family, neighbors, or folks who agree with us or like us, or even our fellow human beings. In the final analysis, it is a mistaken sense of “self” that imprisons us in the view that someone or something else’s gain is our loss and that our personal well-being is paramount. It is this that allows us to rationalize our enormous expenditure on our military or the monetization of food, enriching some while consigning nearly a billion children, women, and men to food insecurity.

In contrast, an awareness of our common humanity compels us to advocate for adequate nutrition as a fundamental and inviolable human right that we are all responsible for ensuring. It is this awareness that underlies the work of Buddhist Global Relief and guides our efforts to combat hunger.

That is why we labor tirelessly to raise funds, which this year will support 54 projects, 18 of them focused on immediate food aid for hungry families in such diverse locations as Tanzania, Vietnam, Haiti, Uganda, Bangladesh, and Senegal. That is also why we invest in teaching subsistence farmers improved, climate-resilient agricultural techniques in places like Malawi, Kenya, Cambodia, India, Brazil, and here in the U.S.

If you share our vision, you can join us in reducing world hunger through your donations or by offering your time and talents as a volunteer. Please explore our website to find out more.

1. United Nations World Summit for Social Development, p. 4.

David Braughton is the vice-chair of Buddhist Global Relief.

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