A new way to measure hunger

By Supriya Kumar 

According to a new paper by University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) associate professor, Robert Jensen, and University of Illinois professor, Nolan Miller, our current method of measuring the number of hungry people in the world might be incorrect. Today, the standard approach to measure hunger is to compare the number of calories eaten by a person to the number of calories needed.

Finding an accurate means of measuring the number of people suffering from hunger is the first step in working to address it. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

This approach defines the number of hungry people based on the average number of calories consumed across the whole population, a rather arbitrary number, since the amount of calories needed for each person differs by sex, age, and other factors. But, according to professors Jensen and Miller, there is a more accurate way of determining the number of undernourished people in a country.

According to their “staple-calorie-share approach”, Jensen and Miller suggest that the first step is to create a baseline of how many calories people receive from the cheapest foods available to them, which are usually staple foods, such as rice and wheat. “We measure how many calories people get from these low-cost foods and how much they get from more expensive foods like meat. The greater the share of calories they receive from the former, the hungrier they are,” say the professors.

The underlying principle of this method is that as a poor consumer in a developing country, you might not have enough money to buy all the calories you need. If, for example, you only have two commodities to choose from, rice and meat, you are more likely to buy rice because it is cheaper, and you can buy more of it to fill you up. If you spent all your money on meat, it might not be enough to fulfill your calorie-intake.

Consumers, who have a little bit more money, typically add some meat to their diets. The consumers’ choice of foods reveals whether they have enough calories. The idea is that if they are not receiving enough calories, they would spend more money on a cheaper food, so that they can consume more of it.  But once they are receiving enough calories, they might decide to buy a more expensive food, to fulfill other needs, such as taste or personal preferences.

The staple-calorie-share method gives us a radically different view of who is hungry and who is not. According to the paper, “the standard approach reveals that in China, the fraction of people consuming fewer than 2,100 calories increased to 67 percent from 53 percent between 1991 and 2001. The fraction of people, however, who appeared hungry, as measured by staple-calorie share (using a threshold of 80 percent of calories consumed through staples), declined to 32 percent from 49 percent. Thus, instead of 150 million more hungry people in China, there were actually almost 200 million fewer.”

As hundreds of million people worldwide suffer from hunger, the more accurately we can calculate the number – whether by the standard approach or the staple-calorie-share approach – the more informed our decisions will be in addressing this challenge.

What do you think? Is this a good approach to measuring the number of hungry people in the world? Let us know in the comments section!

Supriya Kumar is a research fellow with the Nourishing the Planet project. 

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