11/24/2010 08:21 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

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.