I am hungry. What does it mean?

More than 80% of Ethiopians are food insecure. More and more people in Yemen are suffering from hunger and often have only one meal a day. Somalia is on the brink of famine.

Every day, we hear about countries and societies in political and economic crises, crises which result in famine, malnourished children, and food insecurity.

But what do these terms actually mean and what is the difference between them?

What is hunger?

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), hunger is an uncomfortable or painful physical sensation caused by insufficient consumption of dietary energy. It becomes chronic when the person does not consume a sufficient amount of calories (dietary energy) on a regular basis to lead a normal, active and healthy life. “Hunger” may also be referred to as undernourishment.

Severe acute malnutrition

Severe malnutrition, also known as severe wasting, is one of the top threats to child survival. When children lack nutritious food and repeatedly get ill with diarrhea, measles or malaria, it compromises their immunity. “Young children who have gone without food, rapidly drop a lot of bodyweight, often exacerbated by bouts of infectious diarrhea, until they become so thin and frail, they look skeletal,” UNICEF chief Catherine Russell explained.

Chronic malnourishment (stunting)

Children are considered stunted, or chronically malnourished, when they are too short for their age. Stunting is the impaired growth and development that children experience from poor nutrition, repeated infection, and inadequate psychosocial stimulation. Consequences of stunting in early life include poor cognition and educational performance, low adult wages, lost productivity and, when accompanied by excessive weight gain later in childhood, an increased risk of nutrition-related chronic diseases in adult life.

In Yemen more than two million children under the age of five already suffer from acute malnutrition – over 500,000 of them to a life-threatening degree. Read more here.

Food insecurity

A person is food insecure when they lack regular access to enough safe and nutritious food for normal growth and development and an active and healthy life. This may be due to unavailability of food and/or lack of resources to obtain food. FAO measures food insecurity using the Food Insecurity Experience Scale (FIES) shown below:

Food insecurity based on the FIES

The relation between hunger and food insecurity

When a person experiences severe food insecurity, they have no food and have gone days without eating. Thus, food insecurity is a severe form of hunger.

All levels of food insecurity are worrisome. Even at a level of moderate food insecurity, people are forced to forego some basic needs in order to get food. Often this results in getting food that might not be very nutritious, meaning the body gets the daily requirement of calories but may miss essential nutrients. This can lead directly to a rise in obesity and other types of malnutrition across the world.

FAO warns that children exposed to hunger, food insecurity etc. are more prone to being overweight and getting chronic diseases like diabetes in the future.


For a situation to be declared a famine, the hunger level needs to be catastrophic and concentrated. A famine can be declared only when certain measures of mortality, malnutrition and hunger are met: at least 20% of households in an area face extreme food shortages with a limited ability to cope; acute malnutrition rates exceed 30%; and the death rate exceeds two persons per day per 10,000 persons.

But what causes famine? According to the World Food Programme (WFP) conflict is the biggest driver of famine. Conflict forces people away from their homes, land and jobs which makes hunger levels worse. A factor such as climate change also plays a role; climate change causes droughts which result in fewer crops and thus, increasing food shortages.

WFP has issued an urgent warning that 45 million people are teetering on the very edge of famine in 43 countries. One of them is Somalia, which is currently experiencing one of the worst droughts in decades. According to current estimates, six million people in Somalia are already suffering from extreme food insecurity.

Specification of hunger indicators

One of the indicators of hunger is the Food Insecurity Scale (FIES). FAO calculates the prevalence of moderate or severe food insecurity in the population. By conducting interviews with people around the world, FAO obtains data and can provide a measure of food security at individual house level. These estimates can be compared across countries and sub-populations within countries. The advantage of this method is that it answers the question: “Which populations are the most food insecure, and where are they located?”.

What is the UN doing?

Emergencies : WFP is the leading humanitarian organization saving lives and changing lives. In 2020, WFP assisted 115.5 million people – the largest number since 2012 – in 84 countries. On any given day, WFP has 5,600 trucks, 30 ships and nearly 100 planes on the move, delivering food and other assistance to those in most need.

Development: As part of its mandate, FAO strives to eradicate hunger, food insecurity and all forms of malnutrition. FAO supports the livelihoods of small-scale food producers and encourages sustainable use of natural resources. Some of FAO’s past achievements include helping halve the number of hungry in Latin America and the Caribbean, and creating international standards to ensure safe, good food for everyone.

How can I help? 

When you donate to the World Food Programme, your generosity is immediately put to work helping build a world with zero hunger. First your money will be turned into food, and then sent to one of the over 80 countries where people are most vulnerable. You can donate here.

ShareTheMeal is an app created by WFP. With just EUR 0.70 and a few taps on your phone, you can share your meal with someone in need. Decide where you want to help and the UN World Food Programme will deliver the meals. So far, more than 151 million meals have been shared.


Read more here :

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