Op-Ed: Think You Know the Face of Hunger? It Looks Like Your Neighbor Too

Hunger in Rwanda and in the U.S. appear quite different on the surface, but the root causes are strikingly similar.

(Photo: Betta/Getty Images)

May 1, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Michaela Kupfer is the Monitoring & Evaluation Fellow with Gardens for Health International, an organization that partners with families in Rwanda to provide lasting agricultural solutions to chronic malnutrition. She has a BA in Anthropology from Washington University and currently serves as a Global Health Corps fellow.

We need to reimagine how we think about hunger.

For many people living in the United States, the term evokes the image of an emaciated African child—flies buzzing around his face, eyes staring up helplessly. Hunger is something that happens to people over there, people who have no agency or means to feed their children.

To an extent, this image reflects reality, as hunger in sub-Saharan Africa continues to be a pervasive and stubborn issue. Where I work in Rwanda, with Gardens for Health International, 44 percent of children under the age of five are stunted. This means that their physical and cognitive growth has been irreversibly limited because of chronic hunger.

But the image of the starving African child is myopic, as it fails to recognize the millions of Americans living in hunger. Every single day, one out of every four children in the U.S. goes hungry. Because of a dearth of healthy food options, this food insecurity contributes to higher rates of childhood obesity. Seventeen percent of children between the ages of two and 19 are now overweight.

Hunger in Rwanda and in the U.S. appear quite different on the surface. But the root causes—lack of knowledge and access to a nutritious diet—are strikingly similar.

Movies like A Place at the Table have begun the process of painting a new picture of hunger, one that includes the United States. This reimagination has the potential to shift national discourse surrounding the issue—particularly as supporters of the recent SNAP cuts regularly characterize beneficiaries as lazy and irresponsible. Their representation excludes devoted mothers like Barbie Izquierdo, whose struggle to find a well-paying job, work toward college, and feed her children was featured in A Place at the Table.

Our short-sightedness has a ripple effect. “I always thought food insecurity and hunger were just things that happened in these poor African places,” says Naomi Musabyimana, a health educator at Gardens for Health International, where she trains mothers on how they can improve the health of their children. Her views have changed since watching A Place at the Table.

Just a few years ago, however, Musabyimana’s own children were suffering from malnutrition in Rwanda, where they live. Like Izquierdo, Musabyimana at times would find herself crying because her children were hungry and she had nothing to feed them. At several points, she lost the hope that she would escape the situation she was living in.

Then, in 2010, Musabyimana was connected to Gardens for Health. Through the education and support she received, she regained a sense of hope and was able to lift her children out of hunger. She became a trainer with Gardens for Health, teaching other mothers what she had learned. Gardens for Health was founded based on the belief that growing and eating healthy food can—and must—be a part of the long-term solution to malnutrition. The core program works in partnership with health clinics in Rwanda to provide the families of malnourished children with the knowledge, seeds, and support to impact long-term health.

The danger of the image of the helpless, emaciated African child is that we underestimate the role parents must have in responding to malnutrition. What Musabyimana and Izquierdo have in common is more than a history of hunger: They share the courage to better the lives of their children despite tremendous challenges. If mothers and other caregivers are empowered with the tools to address malnutrition, they can and will do it.

We need education on nutrition and other crucial health issues. At Gardens for Health, the families we work with are enrolled in an intensive course of trainings, with topics ranging from how to appropriately wean a child to gender-based violence and its effect on a family’s nutrition.

But empowerment also requires having the resources to put that knowledge into practice. That means having access to healthy foods.

In the U.S., many people live in food deserts—areas where access to fresh produce or low-fat meat products is severely limited. Izquierdo knows that feeding her children canned pasta every night is not nutritious, but taking multiple buses to a fully stocked grocery store is not always feasible.

Here in Rwanda, the challenges of accessing a healthy diet are different. The most prevalent, most affordable food options are carbohydrates such as potatoes and maize, which don’t provide children with the nutrients they need to be healthy. That is why Gardens for Health works with families for a year to provide them with the skills, inputs, and support to maintain home gardens that enable them to diversify their diets and be their own source of a balanced, nutritious diet.

When we fail to equip families with the knowledge and resources to ensure that their children have healthy food, we disrupt children’s potential to thrive. That is something that no family wants and that no country can afford. It is time for us to set forth a new vision of who goes hungry and what role we all have to play in confronting hunger.

To learn more about Gardens for Health International, visit our website.

To meet Naomi Musabyimana and other members of our Rwandan team in New York City, attend our event on May 1.