Hunger problem: It’s not all about more food

JC Punongbayan
The problem with big solutions is that these solve so many small problems at one time that it’s nearly impossible to distinguish between interventions which work and which don’t

A couple of days ago I finished reading Think Like a Freak, the latest book by the self-dubbed “Freakonomists” Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. Using their trademark style of complementing unconventional analysis with compelling stories, they offered to “retrain” their readers’ brains in solving the problems of everyday life.

One of the key messages from that book is that with regard to the problems we face as a society (like crime and poverty) we tend to always “think big,” as if huge problems can be solved only by resorting to equally huge and grand solutions.

Take the case of hunger. In many developing countries like the Philippines, hunger remains a daily battle for survival. According to official data, the “food poor” are those people whose income fall below the cost of basic food and nutritional requirements. While the share of the population who are food poor has decreased from 2006 to 2012, the absolute number of food poor people has increased, mainly due to population growth. Also, more people are food poor now despite the country’s improvement in terms of the Global Hunger Index.

Not surprisingly, the most common (if not knee-jerk) response by big organizations and agencies to our huge hunger problem is to provide more food for the poor. Millions of dollars worth of aid money routinely go to food programs and subsidies to this day.

Food is not always the priority

And yet studies all over the world show a more nuanced picture of hunger. In particular, research shows that hunger is merely a symptom of a larger web of problems (like poverty and inequality), and that it’s not all about providing more food.

Another relatively recent book entitled, Poor Economics (authored by MIT economists Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee), sheds light on many misconceptions of poverty and hunger around the world.

For instance, the authors’ data on 18 developing countries shows that giving more money to the poor will not always make them eat more. In fact the extremely poor living in rural areas spend only half, up to three-fourths of their income on food. In one Indian state, a 1% increase in a poor household’s budget resulted in an increase in total food spending of just 0.67%.

One study in China’s Gansu province even found that if poor households received a large subsidy on the price of a basic staple like rice, they tended to consume less (not more) of it, and begin to consume costlier foods like shrimp or meat. In other words, becoming just a bit richer made the poor consume less of staples which had formed such a substantial part of their income before. Taste, it seems, becomes a more important consideration than mere calories when the income of the poor rises.

Other than food, on which goods do the poor spend their extra money? Many studies have found that the poor can spend quite a bit on things that may seem luxurious to them, like TVs, cellphones, and DVD players. Also, as borne by Duflo and Banerjee’s data on 18 countries, when the rural poor have no access to these technologies they often spend on festivals: In Udaipur City in India, for example, where virtually no one owns a television, the poor actually spend a non-trivial 14% of their budget on festivals and religious occasions.

Sometimes social norms can even pressure families to sacrifice food for family events. In South Africa, families (even poor ones) are compelled by cultural expectations to spend as much as 40% of per capita income on lavish funeral parties to honor their dead, even to the point of family members starving or children dropping out of school a year later.

Hunger vs malnutrition

Hence, it appears that the poor will not jump at every opportunity to eat food where they can. Put differently, even if access to food is eased (say, in the form of food aid or subsidies), the poor will not necessarily always choose to eat more, given the other behavioral and cultural considerations that they value.

Even so, chronic hunger remains to be a serious problem since it usually leads to chronic malnutrition. The difference is subtle but crucial: While hunger refers more to the quantity of food, malnutrition refers more to the quality of food. And more than an insufficient quantity of food, an insufficient quality of food during childhood can have devastating effects later on in adult life.

In this regard the data for the Philippines is disheartening. The latest national nutrition survey shows that among children aged 4 and below, one in three is height stunted, one in 5 is underweight, and about 7.5% are acutely undernourished. The deprivations among those aged 5 to 10 are even worse across those 3 dimensions.

Just how life-altering is malnourishment in early childhood? It turns out that children born into malnourishment can potentially pay for it in much of their adult life. In Tanzania, for instance, babies born to mothers receiving sufficient iodine supplements during pregnancy are likely to complete substantially more years in school than siblings born when their mothers received no such iodine supplements.

In the opposite direction, combatting malnutrition early on can work wonders in improving children’s lives once they enter adulthood. In Kenya, a child who is dewormed for 2 years rather than just one year can expect an income gain during his lifetime of about $3,269 (or P143,000); note that the unit cost of deworming there is a paltry $1.36/year (or about P60/year).

Such studies are but few examples where simple interventions can lead to lifetime gains. And yet instead of resorting to these small nudges (other examples include the provision of packets of iodized salt and iron-fortified fish sauce), many of us are transfixed with the idea that big problems like hunger can only be solved by similarly big solutions (such as nationwide feeding programs and food aid).

The problem with big solutions is that these solve so many small problems at one time that it’s nearly impossible to distinguish between interventions which work and which don’t, rendering the solution largely ineffective on average. Small solutions, in contrast, allow a more thoughtful evaluation that yields more confident and robust results.

The government’s 4Ps or conditional cash transfer program is a sterling example of an intervention that was borne from thinking small. Originally tested in randomized control trials in Latin America, decades of careful research have shown that incentivizing investments in education and health, even with just small amounts of money, can work wonders in stopping the intergenerational transfer of poverty and hunger. 

Thinking small

All in all, hunger is an intricate, complex phenomenon than most people will realize (or admit). Solving hunger is clearly not as simple as buying more food (particularly grains) and giving it to the poor for free or at substantially lowered prices.

Instead, policies on hunger must not only throw out the window long-held misconceptions (such as the poor always wanting more food) but also start thinking small (like relying more on scientific, randomized experiments that can objectively and ruthlessly sift through effective and ineffective solutions).

Above all, the results of thoughtful research must reach policymakers and inform them about the actual truth behind hunger, so that the interventions they are often wont to implement go beyond the staple (yet simplistic and historically ineffective) food distribution and subsidies. –


JC Punongbayan is a summa cum laude graduate of the UP School of Economics, where he currently teaches a refresher course on microeconomics for incoming graduate students. His views in this article are independent of the views of his affiliations. He blogs at

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JC Punongbayan

Jan Carlo “JC” Punongbayan, PhD is an assistant professor at the University of the Philippines School of Economics (UPSE). His professional experience includes the Securities and Exchange Commission, the World Bank Office in Manila, the Far Eastern University Public Policy Center, and the National Economic and Development Authority. JC writes a weekly economics column for He is also co-founder of and co-host of Usapang Econ Podcast.