Friday, March 25, 2011

Stomach staples: People’s spending choices are a good way to assess levels of hunger

March 24, 2011

For most people in rich countries hunger is a temporary inconvenience, easily solved by popping out to the shops or raiding the fridge. But chronic hunger is part of everyday life for many people in poorer places. Halving the proportion of people in developing countries who do not get enough to eat is one of the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals.

Reducing hunger is a complicated task. There is no global shortage of food. Less poverty does not always mean better-nourished people. In India, for example, real incomes rose and the price of food fell between 1980 and 2005. Yet evidence suggests that Indians, even those who were originally eating less than recommended, reduced their calorie consumption in that time. Such findings have long puzzled economists.

A recent paper by two economists, Robert Jensen of the University of California, Los Angeles, and Nolan Miller of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, suggests that part of the problem may lie in the way governments and international agencies count the hungry. This typically involves fixing a calorie threshold — 2,100 calories per day is a common benchmark — and trying to count how many people report eating food that gives them fewer calories than this number. Since calorific needs differ from person to person, a universal number is clearly only a guide. What’s more, concentrating on calories ignores the important role of micronutrients such as minerals and vitamins. But the economists argue that this approach to measuring hunger also does not accord with how people themselves think about it. They propose a new way to use people’s eating choices to tell whether they are hungry.


Read the Paper

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