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Food Justice

Introducing Food Justice

By Sarika Mathur

Hunger and poverty have a cyclical relationship.

The world’s food system has the ability to produce an abundance of quality food to feed the global population. Yet, nearly one billion people (more than the combined populations of USA, Canada and the European Union) go to bed hungry every night. Paradoxically, the majority of hungry and undernourished people are the very same ones who produce our food. Small farmers and landless rural people comprise about 80 percent of all undernourished persons.

The burden of hunger falls disproportionately on women: Women are responsible for producing 60 to 80 percent of the food in most developing countries while owning only 1 percent of the land and receiving less than 8 percent of agricultural help. Because of inadequacies in our current food system, one in seven people are hungry. They are stuck in the poverty trap. 

The cycle of hunger and poverty

Hunger and poverty have a cyclical relationship. Chronic, long-term poverty prevents people from growing or purchasing sufficient quantities of nutritious, quality food. The diets of the poor and the vulnerable often consist mainly of basic, starchy foods, which lead to macro- and micronutrient deficiencies. The World Health Organization notes that more than two billion people—close to 30 percent of the world’s population—suffer from a lack of essential vitamins and minerals in their food. According to the World Food Programme, more than five million children under age five die every year from undernutrition. Without adequate nutrition, human beings are unable to grow, work, prevent disease or maintain healthy lives, all of which can lead to greater levels of hunger and poverty.

Food insecurity is not confined to the developing world alone. Here in the United States, 14.5 percent of households were food insecure in 2010, the highest number on record. While calories have never been cheaper, a nutritious diet has become more elusive. Americans increasingly eat cheap highly processed foods, which have excess calories but are nutrition deficient. Fresh produce and foods with high nutrient qualities can be expensive and are not readily available in all communities. 

Hunger leads to social unrest

In the past few years, international food prices have reached record levels, leading to social unrest, violence and uprisings. In Algeria, a country heavily dependent on food imports, food riots broke out in 2008 and again in 2011 due to food inflation. Oxfam reported that more than 20,000 people took to the streets in Yemen to protest the rising price of commodities such as food and water. Food insecurity was one of the main underlying factors of the Arab Spring of 2011, which toppled heads of state in Tunisia and Egypt and demonstrated the strong correlation between conflict and food insecurity.

Similarly, wars and conflicts, such as the 2004 conflict in Darfur, Sudan, forced millions to relocate, causing high displacement. Safe-haven countries offering refuge were unable to feed their growing populations, and hunger emergencies ensued. Such occurrences are becoming increasingly common as climate change exacerbates already adverse natural conditions.

For example, poor farmers in Ethiopia and Guatemala have traditionally dealt with rain failure by selling off livestock to cover their losses and pay for food. But successive years of drought, increasingly common in the Horn of Africa and Central America, are exhausting their resources. Food insecure and unable to meet basic needs for survival, these farmers become refugees as they abandon their homes in search of food at high costs: Displacement often tears families apart, takes children out of school and jeopardizes a community’s peace and security.

Food Justice Project

United Methodist Women recognizes that hunger is a universal phenomenon and one that we must urgently address. The Global Justice office has a new project, titled Food Justice, which will look at complex national and international issues to explore how food is linked to peace and security.

United Methodist Women has long been committed to food issues. They created mission studies, one on food and faith in 2009 and one on poverty in 2012. The Food Justice project will be a follow-up to these studies and will provide background papers, resources and helpful tools that you can use to bring about change in your community and country. We hope you will join us in this important journey toward food justice.

Sarika Mathur works for Global Justice office at United Methodist Women on issues around food and hunger, women’s rights, and international peace and security. Before joining UMW, Sarika worked as the Coordinator of the NGO Working Group on Food & Hunger at Global Policy Forum.

Last Updated: 04/07/2014

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