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According to the definition given at the 1996 World Food Summit, "Food Security exists when all the people, at all times, have the physical and economic access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food for a healthy and active life" (Burchi p. 7). To those of us in the Western World, the idea may sound basic, but in reality, the world is still far from achieving this goal. In 2010, it is estimated that 925 million people (Silbrain) worldwide remain undernourished, a truly alarming number considering that it represents one seventh of the world’s population - more than the population of the United States, Canada, and the European Union combined (WFP 2010). Hunger and malnutrition, the most basic forms of human suffering, remain the world’s greatest health risk, affecting more people than AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis combined (WFP 2010).




Source: FAO, 2010,

As shown in the above graph, the slow progress made toward the reduction of hunger over the last few decades was quickly reversed by the economic crisis as food prices peaked in 2008 and levels of hunger jumped dramatically, leaving hunger levels today greater than they were in 1969.

One reason for the slow decrease in the proportion of hungry people worldwide has been, and will continue to be, population growth. Indeed, the percentage of hunger in the developing world has dropped to 16%, although the recent decline in this number has stopped and alarmingly, even begun to reverse.

Source: FAO, 2010,

In the above graphs, the FAO uses an 1800-calorie cutoff for undernourishment; a household which exceeds 1800 calories/person/day for three months or more ceases to be considered undernourished (Bassett & Winter-Nelson, 2010).  Finding a suitable definition of undernourishment in general, however, is a difficult task.  Although the FAO uses 1800 calories as its cutoff for undernourishment, many nutritionists regard 2100 calories as the minimum number of calories to maintain a healthy, active lifestyle (Bassett & Winter-Nelson, 2010).  Additionally, the National Academy of Sciences publishes much more detailed calorie requirements for each age group (Leathers, 33). This aspect of the issue is important to note because slightly changing the definition of undernourishment can dramatically change the picture of undernutrition in the world.

Other often-used methods of measuring undernourishment include the Z-score used by the WHO, which is a measurement of the variation from the mean of an individual’s weight and height, and the SCS (staple calorie share) method proposed by researchers from UCLA, which takes into account the ability of calories to be absorbed and used by the body. For the purposes of this project, we will define undernourishment for adults as an intake of less than 1800 calories per person per day.

Another important distinction is the difference between undernutrition and malnutrition.  Undernutrition refers to deficiencies in calories, protein, and/or essential vitamins and minerals in a person's diet. It results from an inadequate intake of nutritious food. Malnutrition, on the other hand, is a general term which refers to both undernutrition and overnutrition, the consumption of too many calories.

For children, measuring undernourishment by calorie intake is less reliable since the necessary calorie intake varies so much across their stages of growth. Instead, three other measures of malnutrition for children are more telling: stunting, wasting, and low body weight.  Stunting, a low height for one’s age, serves as a good overall indicator of undernutrition because it results from the cumulative effects of chronic undernutrition; wasting, or low weight for one’s height, reflects acute undernutrition from inadequate food and nutrient intake and/or repeated or severe disease; and low body weight, may reflect either stunting, wasting, or both (IFPRI). According to UNICEF, stunting affects 195 million children under the age of five in the developing world, or about one in three children.  Nearly one of four children is underweight, and one in 10 severely underweight (IFPRI).


As proposed by Jean Mayer in 1976 (Leathers, p. 23), three types of undernourishment exist:

1.      Secondary malnutrition, which is the result of sickness. 

2.      Micronutrient malnutrition or dietary deficiency, when the body does not receive adequate amounts of certain essential nutrients.  The most common types are Vitamin A deficiency, iron deficiency, and iodine deficiency.

3.      Protein-Calorie Malnutrition, when the body does not receive adequate energy through calories or protein.  This is the most common kind of undernourishment.  Efforts to combat hunger usually focus on providing people with sufficient calories, because an adequate number of calories usually provides a person with an adequate amount of protein (Leathers, p. 32).

Our focus in this project is generally on improving caloric intake, which is the root cause of most cases of undernourishment, although we will also address micronutrient deficiency.

Works cited: 

Bassett, T. & Winter-Nelson, A. (2010). Atlas of world hunger. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Burchi, F., & De Muro, P. (2007). Education for rural people: a neglected key to food security. Rep. Universita Degla Studi Roma Tre.

Hunger. (2010) World Food Programme. Retrieved November 20, 2010 from

Sibrain, R. (2010). Millenium Development Goals Indicators: Series Metadata. Retrieved November 29, 2010, from

(2007). Undernourishment Around the World 2010. FAO. Retrieved November 29, 2010, from

Wahlberg, K. "Food Aid for the Hungry?" Human Security Gateway. Global Policy Forum, Jan. 2008. Retrieved November 29, 2010, from

The Global Food Crisis.Catholic Relief Services. Retrieved November 20, 2010, from

International Food Policy Research Institute. Global Hunger Index - 2010, The challenge of hunger: Focus on the Crisis of Child Undernutrition, Washington D.C.: International Food Policy Research Institute. Retrieved November 29, 2010, from

Leathers, H., & Foster, P. (2009). The world food problem: toward ending undernutrition in the third world. Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers Inc.