Joan Holmes

(WOMENSENEWS)–At the Thanksgiving table, it’s not unusual for people in the United States to bust through their daily intake of around 2,300 calories to consume as many as 3,500 to 4,000. Meanwhile, many people in the developing world are thankful if they get 1,200 calories for the day.

With such inequities in mind, many in the United States give thanks for their own good fortune by sharing some of it with others.Groups such as America’s Second Harvest, based in Chicago, estimate that holidays are the busiest season for giving money to charities for food and to support programs that seek to more sustainable solutions to hunger through education, training and social reform.

With an estimated 1 billion people in the world suffering from hunger and malnutrition–and 70 percent of them being women–these annual gushes of giving only make a dent in the overall need, according to those familiar with the world hunger epidemic. America’s Second Harvest network is comprised of more than 200 regional food banks and food rescue organizations that distribute almost 2 billion pounds of food to 50,000 local and faith-based agencies.

"In spite of our vast national network of food assistance, we were only able to distribute 59 pounds of food for each person in poverty during 2002–just 47 meals," said Susan Hofer, the group’s communications manager.

"When people think about hunger in the U.S. or internationally, it is important to think about the difference between charity and justice," said Larry Brown, the director of the Center on Hunger and Poverty at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. "We have a tendency to give at Christmastime or Thanksgiving, but hungry people have a funny way of getting hungry the next day too. By definition you do not end hunger through charity."

Instead, Brown said that hunger can only be overcome by plans that incorporate empowerment, which can include access to information, education and freedom of action. Such a plan, says Brown, must address gender-linked wage inequities, because women in all parts of the world bear disproportionate responsibility for family, health, nutrition, education and increasingly family income–the key issues in ending hunger.

"The primary cause of hunger anywhere is lack of adequate income and the failure of government programs to reach people at risk," said Brown. "Women are at such high risk because in all societies, including the United States, they are the beasts of burden. They are the home makers and the bread winners disproportionately. So when you have gender discrimination and lack of educational opportunities, when you have single and divorced mothers, it is a recipe for a number of risk factors."

Near Invisible Producers of Sub-Saharan Africa

The need to redress gender inequities as a way of ending hunger is nowhere more acute than in sub-Saharan Africa. Here, nearly half of the population lives on $1 a day or less, and one third of the people suffer from chronic hunger, making it the area of the world with the highest percentage of undernourished people in the population, according to Joan Holmes, president of The Hunger Project, a New York-based nonprofit organization committed to the sustainable end of world hunger.

In sub-Saharan Africa, the woman is what Holmes describes as the invisible producer.

"It is said, that if African women were to stop working–for one day–on that day there would be no food, no caring for the sick, no caring for the children, no sewing, no trading in the market. Life would stop, literally stop," said Holmes. Nonetheless, the crucial role of women as food producers, agents of change and major contributors to the economy has rarely been acknowledged. Nor have plans been created or financial resources budgeted by governments to enable women to play their critical role, she added.

In sub-Saharan Africa, women produce 80 percent of the food and perform the majority of the work entailed in processing, transporting, storing and marketing food in the region.

At the same time, however, women have almost no publicly acknowledged identity as farmers. Women own only 1 percent of the land, receive 7 percent of farm-extension services that give farmers vital information about new technologies, plant varieties and market opportunities. Women are excluded from these extension programs, because they are excluded from rural organizations, whose membership is often restricted to recognized landowners or heads of household, who in most cases are men.

Women also receive less than 10 percent of the credit given small scale farmers, according to Hunger Project data. Female farmers have difficulties in accessing credit because most of the credit programs are for larger sums that are oriented to more commercial crops, run by men, instead of subsistence farming. Moreover, they lack access to land and the opportunity to participate in development programs and rural organizations, which are often part of the credit systems.

Our Own Back Yard

Hunger and poverty are in no way just other continents’ problems, however. In the United States they are also on the rise. At the end of October, the U.S. Census Bureau released data showing poverty increased to 12.1 percent in 2002 from 11.7 percent in 2001. The group the hardest hit by this increase in poverty: single female heads of household. Thirty-two percent of these households live in poverty.

"As a nation, we don’t pay much attention to hunger anywhere if you look at how we express our concerns and spend our money," said Brown. "It is certainly easier to feel like there is hunger in other countries than here, primarily because you see children with distended bellies, and automatically, you know it is there."

While the most severe forms of malnutrition and starvation have largely disappeared in the wealthiest country in the world, the problems of poverty are spreading. After three years of economic decline and massive cutbacks in social services, 1 in 10 of all households does not have access to enough food to meet its basic needs. Over 35 million people–12.5 percent of all U.S. citizens–live in household that don’t know where their next meal is coming from. Nine million people live in households that go hungry and one third of these are children.

"Poverty is really the issue here," said Molly Anderson, senior program officer of the U.S. regional office of Oxfam America, a Boston-based non-profit that works on long-term solutions to poverty, hunger and social injustice around the world.

Marianne Sullivan is a New York-based freelance writer who writes frequently on economics and finance.



For more information:

Center on Hunger and Poverty:

Oxfam International:

The Hunger Project:

America’s Second Harvest: