Paradoxes: The History on Hunger

“Escalating global hunger and obesity levels might seem like a gigantic paradox. It is not. It is part of a single global food crisis, with economic, geopolitical, and environmental dimensions. It is perhaps the starkest, most basic way in which global inequality is manifest” (Otter, 2010).

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the development of non-governmental relief organizations that started out targeting specific trouble spots such as food security, food desserts, and supply and demand for healthy food but grew into full-time bureaucracies (Denning, 2009).  

The historical origins of today’s global linkages between food, capital, energy, environment, and technology lie well before the mid-twentieth century. There were important institutional dimensions to this post-World War II shift. The foundation of the UN and the FAO (1945), the idea that the entire world could collectively suffer a “food crisis” (of misdistribution, hunger, and famine) can be said to have been born (Otter, 2010).

Historical institutions on the topic of hunger were first the Church. The church was the first place to help the poor and hungry. Dating back to BC, the poor, ill, and hungry sought refuge at the church. As we transitioned into hunger being brought into government institutions the US was critical in providing government aid during World War II. The US military and government took it upon themselves to lend aid with strings attached of course. Present day some key institutions are the US Department of Health and Social Services, Action Against Hunger, Feeding America, Food Banks, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Looking at Hunger from the US historical role Arizona has a unique stamp being that Van Hengel established St. Mary’s Food Bank in Phoenix, AZ as the nation’s first food bank. In its initial year, Van Hengel and his team of volunteers distributed 275,000 pounds of food to people in need. Word of the food bank’s success quickly spread, and states began to take note. By 1977, food banks had been established in 18 cities across the country (Feeding America, 2019). Van Hengel was a key player in the history of ending hunger.

St. Mary’s Food Bank, Arizona Map 2017

In 2008, Eva Clayton, the former special adviser to the Director-General of the FAO, spoke before the U.S. House of Representatives. “The situation is dire,” she stated. “Our response must be decisive and forward thinking. The failure to strengthen our global food system would ultimately lead to political and economic upheaval all over the world.

In Arizona there have been legislative efforts made by the state government one of them being the Arizona SB 1053 (2011) creates a special license plate that garners $17 per plate in donations to the Association of Arizona Food Banks, pending start-up funding of $32,000 from the Association (National Conferences of State Legislatures, 2011). This bill is a form of legislation that creates revenue to help with the emergency food funding.

Also a worthwhile blog is the Arizona Department of Health Services Arizonans Helping to Prevent Hunger Blog by the director herself, Cara Christ MD. Hunger is a real issue though it may not be staring all of us in the face it does affect vulnerable children and the homeless population.


Clear, J. (n.d.). Dutch hunger [National Institute for War Documentation, Amsterdam Photo]. Retrieved from

Denning, R. (2009, October). Famine: A short history. Retrieved from

National Conferences of National Legislatures. (2012, January). State Legislation on Hunger. Retrieved from

Otter, C. (2010, March). Feast and Famine: The Global Food Crisis. Retrieved from

Shahril, M. (2014). Nourish to flourish [Graphic]. Retrieved from

Syukron, A. (2016). Obesity vs hunger [Twitter Image ]. Retrieved from


6 thoughts on “Paradoxes: The History on Hunger

  1. I really appreciated your post this week. This is such an important topic. I found the map of the food banks very interesting and it reminded me of another map that can really raise some awareness to food scarcity. The Arizona Department of Health Services has a great interactive map that reflects food deserts [1]. Before I took a class on community nutrition I had never heard the term food desert, but it has resonated with me since. Often we tell people to eat better to improve health, or combat epidemics such as childhood obesity, but how often do we consider their circumstances? Consideration should also be given to those that must rely on food banks to provide their meals. It can be difficult for a person to eat healthy when the food they eat comes from a food bank and they have little impact on what ends up in the box. It’s difficult to believe there are still so many facing hunger as a daily issue when the resources are available to provide for everyone. I thought your mention of a specialized plate funneling money back to food programs was a great solution and one I’d be happy to contribute to. Great post and I look forward to seeing where else your blog takes you.



  2. J-Jack4087

    This is such an important topic that is often overshadowed by the obesity epidemic. My husband and I were talking about children’s access to food and overall exposure to sound nutrition. When we were pregnant with our first son we had discussed that setting a good example and teaching our children the right eating habits was important to the both of us; fast forward 12-years and we realize many families don’t have the opportunity we have. Many families may only be able to provide one meal a day (or less). For school-aged children, school lunches may be the only source of “nutritious” consistent meals. My husband is a junior-high teacher and he mentioned the concern that he and his colleagues shared when the “Red for Ed” movement was taking place and schools were shut down. Several schools in the valley were going to provide meals still despite being closed because they realized if they didn’t children may not eat. According to one report, 51% of school-aged children qualify for free or reduced lunches in 2012-13. Furthermore, the report highlights the importance between lunch quality and academic performance. Without consistent sound nutrition, children are less likely to succeed in school and pursue secondary education[1]. I look forward to following your topic to see how it develops.


    Journalists Resource (2017). School meals: Healthy lunches, food waste, and effects on learning. Retrieved from


  3. I would like to further elaborate on the historical and contemporary role of church on the topic of hunger. The Bible illustrated that early churches used their offering and accepted gifts to feed and care for the poor and needy. Being a Christian is more than just feeding the poor, this does not define the Christian, however, it is part of being a Christian. For example, I once met a provider and his wife whose life-story were so inspiring. Both their parents disowned them because they got pregnant out of wedlock. However, they sought refuge at a local church away from home. The church married them, gave them shelter, food, and clothes until they were able to complete medical and nursing school.

    Frequently, some pragmatic people like me find ourselves struggling with giving money away to people on the street. People and the media have shown how homeless people who were given money spend it on drugs. While one may want to help, it is impossible to know whether the person asking for money is going to use it for drugs or alcohol or to avoid working. As a Christian, we are commanded to help one another and we are also called to help those who are less fortunate than we are. Proverbs 21:13 is among the most powerful calls from God for Christians to help those who are hungry.

    Unfortunately, most churches are now focused on acquiring buildings such as branches/ expansions or private schools that half the congregation cannot afford, jet planes, expensive cars, and art. Here is a link to show such scandal:

    Top 10 richest pastors in the world in 2019. (2018). Retrieved from


  4. Thank you for such an interesting review of the paradox that exists between America’s simultaneous issues with both obesity AND food insecurity. The quote you included by Otter that pointed out how this paradox actually brings into light the global disparities that exist was extremely compelling (1). Otter discusses some really interesting points about how the increase in meat consumption plays a significant role in the global food crisis that we are seeing today. Although, when someone mentions the increase in meat consumption, I generally associate it with the very recent dietary trends such as Atkins or keto diet; however, Otter explains that these trends actually started much earlier in the 1900s. With meat being symbolically linked to a position of power, many countries began consuming more meat that what they were actually producing. The result of this trend is that meat began to be imported, which in turn, created more sophisticated and energy-intense transportation measures, as it required refrigeration. This marked a significant point in which the food consumption patterns became evidently asymmetrical, separating North America and Europe from a large part of the rest of the world, creating what Otter terms as ‘fat and hungry zones.’ Interestingly enough, while many other countries are trying to emulate the Western diet today, many Westerners who are increasingly concerned about their health are attempting to trend away towards less processed, ‘clean’ foods.
    All that being said, we can see much of the global trends that Otter describes on display right here in our own country, with both obesity and food insecurity existing just feet apart from each other. Nutritional and dietary inequality is embedded in the fabric of our institutions, and we have a responsibility to put in place policies that propose to undo the injustices that have been inadvertently created. As always, I look forward to reading your subsequent blogs to see the role you feel our political institutions play in this issue.

    1. Otter, C. (2010, March). Feast and Famine: The Global Food Crisis. Retrieved from


  5. Thank you for taking on a topic that affects each of us individually as well as more broadly from a family, community, city, state, national, and international perspective. Of particular interest to me is nutrition scarcity among socioeconomically disadvantaged populations in the United States. It is fascinating and disheartening that in a nation of such overwhelming abundance, we have morbidly obese children experiencing food scarcity as a function of their diets and lack of understanding regarding nutrition among the general public. It is interesting that our grocery stores are packed with exciting and well-advertised food that “fills” people in the middle of the store while food that “nourishes” and requires preparation is pushed to the far edges. In Obesity and Economic Environments (2015), Sturm and An mention several key items. Lower socioeconomic groups consume less expensive, more energy dense foods, which may have led to increases in BMI over time. All socio economic groups in the United States have seen increases in BMi since the 1950’s, but additional factors aside from simply “highly processed foods” explain this phenomena. Increases in “screen time” as well as increased urbanization leading to longer transportation times, as well as a shift from physical labor to “office labor” have contributed greatly to a more sedentary lifestyle. Children naturally learn from adults, so greater employment of low energy expenditure activities stands to reason given changes in parental habits.

    “It is often believed that the obesity epidemic reflects increasing social disparities or that the largest weight gains are concentrated in groups identifiable by race/ethnicity, income, education, or geography. This belief, however, is incorrect: Changes in BMI appear to be very similar across all population subgroups, even though the average BMI (and the prevalence of obesity) at any point is highest among groups with lower income and education and among some ethnic minorities. This makes it very unlikely that the obesity epidemic is caused by environmental changes that affect certain sociodemographic subgroups disproportionally. Instead, we interpret those trends as similar environmental changes for all sociodemographic groups” (Sturm & An, 2015).

    From a historical perspective, food cost in the United States is comparatively inexpensive as a function of total income. However, research shows lower socioeconomic groups purchase less higher cost low energy density foods such as fruits and vegetables. Therefore, as a percentage of total consumption, calorie rich, high energy density foods make up a greater portion of total consumption.
    Interestingly, the idea of “food deserts” is largely inaccurate as increases in purchase and consumption of fruits and vegetables does not increase based on proximity and availability.
    Solutions to nutrition scarcity from a health policy perspective include increases in taxes on soft drinks and fast foods, as well as increased education across all socioeconomic groups.

    Sturm, R., and An, R. (2015). Obesity and economic environments. A Cancer Journal for Clinicians. 64, 337-350. doi: 10.3322/caac.21237


  6. Thank you for this visually evocative post and helpful review of U.S. policy related to hunger along with the history of hunger-related efforts in Arizona. As you consider the contemporary landscape of policy to end childhood hunger, who are the significant stakeholder groups in Arizona?


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