Hunger is about so much more than food

Posted on May 13, 2011 by elcaworldhunger

I’ve been watching the news of the Mississippi river flooding with interest. In any immediate way, it has nothing to do with me. I’m hundreds of miles away, going about my days. But at the same time, the news coverage gives me pause beyond the horrible fascination of watching a disaster.

Disasters are impressively good at causing or exacerbating hunger. The immediate causes are obvious: if your house is under water, where do go? Where will you get food if roads, grocery stores, and restaurants are under water, too? How do you get potable water if the water treatment facilities aren’t functioning? This is all well known. Infrastructure destruction gets lots of attention because it’s so dramatic; it makes for good TV. But as I watch, I can’t help but recognize how little separates me from hunger. We in the U.S. rely on our infrastructure so completely, yet on a daily basis, I rarely acknowledge it. It’s just there, reliable and ubiquitous. Until it isn’t.

The longer-term impacts are equally problematic, and usually so quiet. I can almost guarantee I won’t hear anything about this flood by September, but it will still be a current event in the sense that its effects will not have ended. Besides people’s homes, how many businesses have been flooded? How long will it take them to reopen, as insurance claims are filed and renovating or rebuilding is done? How long will people be out of their jobs as they wait for companies to reopen? Even worse, how many businesses will not survive an extended closing? And how many didn’t have insurance to start with, taking the risk of establishing a business (or home!) in an uninsurable floodplain location? Some won’t even try to start again. What are the tax implications to already strapped states if a swath of their industrial base isn’t functioning or even goes away? How many years does that impact last, and how does it affect the public as governments make budget decisions? There are so many ways a disaster changes the economic situation, and therefore the hunger and poverty situation.

Then there are the direct and long-term environmental impacts to hunger as a result of flooded farmland. Some of this country’s most fertile land is currently covered in water – just in time for the spring planting. As the flood waters drain, in some places topsoil will be washed away. In others, soil will be contaminated by whatever the river picked up along the way. Will there be long-term consequences to field productivity and, consequently, food supplies? Productive, arable land is obviously an important factor in hunger (especially as the global population increases; see David’s last post), and one we don’t think too much about in this very fertile country.

So many things that impact hunger from one seemingly localized and distant flood (albeit a big one)! One thing disasters make clear: fighting hunger is so much more than giving people food.

-Nancy Michaelis

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