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Understanding Hunger

By Bhikkhu Bodhi

More than
5 million kids
die annually from
hunger, malnutrition, and hunger-related illnesses.
That means a child is dying every 5 seconds.

The Number One Killer

What is the number one killer in the world today? Is it HIV/AIDS? War? Tuberculosis or malaria? No, the number one killer is hunger and malnutrition.

Hunger takes 25,000 lives each day. That amounts to close to 10 million lives every year; this means a Holocaust and a half annually. Almost 60% of these lives are children: a yearly toll of over 5 million kids; 13,500 children each day; a child every five seconds. And so little is needed to stop this killer in its tracks.

Why Is Hunger Still So Widespread?

About 900 million people around the world suffer from hunger. This means almost one-sixth of the world’s population faces hunger everyday, more than all the people in the U.S., Canada, and the European Union combined.

Yet, ironically, hunger does not exist because we lack food or the resources to grow food. Natural disasters, drought, war, land degradation, and poor farming practices play a role, but the most potent factor of all behind hunger is endemic poverty. When people are poor, they can’t purchase the foods they need; or if they can buy food, they can’t get enough healthy food, food rich in health-sustaining nutrients.

Poverty sets in motion a vicious cycle. Poverty breeds hunger, which leads to illness, unemployment, and early death. And when a parent dies prematurely, the family sinks into deeper poverty and into more insistent hunger.

Yet in today’s world, poverty and hunger are not inevitable. They persist, not because we lack the technologies or expertise, but because we lack the collective will, the imagination, and the compassionate intent to bring poverty to an end.

To put an end to poverty and global hunger would take just a small fraction of what we spend on military operations and weapons of destruction. The abolition of global poverty would eliminate glaring economic disparities and thereby make us all safer. It would usher in an era of joy the likes of which we can scarcely imagine. It would bring inexpressible joy as we recognize our real status as brothers and sisters with the same origins, facing a common destiny on the same planet.

What Can Be Done?

Hunger caused by a crisis, such as an earthquake, a cyclone, or drought, requires emergency food aid. It is this kind of crisis that grabs the headlines and elicits calls for massive influx of aid. However, the more pernicious form of hunger is chronic malnutrition. Chronic malnutrition strikes larger populations, disables more bodies, and claims more lives  than episodic disasters. Yet because it is a persistent state of affairs, outside professional relief circles it receives far too little attention.

Chronic malnutrition results when a diet provides insufficient calories and lacks the vital micro-nutrients essential to a healthy and productive life.

Alleviating chronic malnutrition involves two main components:

  • a diet that supplies the necessary nutrients;
  • training, education, and other opportunities for escaping poverty.

“Education” means teaching people about nutrition and showing them how to cultivate crops that will meet their nutritional needs. “Opportunity” means lifting people out from poverty by giving them the chance to uplift themselves.

Agriculture is the lifeblood for billions of people around the world, yet it is agrarian populations that suffer most from poverty and chronic hunger. The road out from poverty is not creating more urban jobs, which leads to exploding mega-cities, but improving conditions for farmers, especially small-scale farmers who depend on their yields to feed their families and sell their surplus on the markets. What farmers need most are land tenure, access to water, tools, better seeds, training in simple agricultural technologies, and greater access to markets to sell their produce. 

Why Should Buddhists Be Concerned About Global Hunger?

The chief qualities of the heart emphasized in Buddhism are metta and karuna, loving-kindness and compassion. The Buddha says that we should extend our love and compassion universally to all beings throughout the world, protecting them “as a mother protects her only child.” The way to express compassion in action is generosity, and the most essential gift for sustaining life is the gift of food. The Buddha said “hunger is the worst kind of illness” (Dhammapada 203). He also declared: “If people knew the results of giving, they wouldn’t eat without having shared their meal with others” (Itivuttaka 26). Taking these words to heart, we should each make it our personal mission to do what we can to eliminate world hunger.

In an age that has made our common humanity so palpably real, the Buddha’s teachings challenge us to “share our meal” with others no matter where they may be living, no matter what their nationality, ethnicity, gender, or religion might be. Since chronic malnutrition is the cause of unthinkable misery, we cannot remain complacent when so many go hungry every day.

We must express compassion in action by giving others the gift of food and offering them the chance to live with dignity, to feed themselves and their families. By putting our hearts and hands together, we can turn this world into a Buddha-realm marked by justice, equity, and opportunity for all.

(Most of the factual data about global hunger in this article has been gathered from the website of the World Food Program,


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BGR projects are designed to provide direct food aid to people afflicted by hunger and malnutrition, to promote ecologically sustainable agriculture, to support the education of girls and women, and to give women an opportunity to start right livelihood projects to support their families. This is a selection of nine of our current 29 projects. Please select "Current Projects" from the menu on the left to see them all.