Why Food Poverty is a Health Time Bomb

April 30, 2019

Kerry Wright didn’t feel hungry. Not in the way you might expect. Her tummy grumbled, yes, she could hear it. She just couldn’t feel it. She called it “starvation mode”. Wright, a mother of three living in Aberdeen, had hit a low point. But she needed to provide for her children, who then were just entering their teens.

By the time she was faced with the prospect of watching her own children go without, she had fallen out of contact with her parents and the rest of her family. She’d wanted a fresh start. Except that at that moment, in 2013, a fresh start was looking pretty far off. Her partner had left and her benefits were falling short. Now and again, she took paid housework jobs but never made enough money. She would scan her cupboards in despair, hoping there would be enough soup or tins of beans to at least get the next lunch together.

Because there was always so little to go around, it didn’t take long before she started skipping meals. The effects soon materialised. She was tired all the time – and yet she couldn’t sleep. She was hungry, but she didn’t want to eat, and, if she did, she would sometimes be sick. Her head was frazzled. It was hard to keep a string of thoughts together.

Wright was exhausted but desperate not to reveal the extent of her fatigue to her children. So she would walk around the house with one hand on the furniture, holding herself steady. A severe iron deficiency, she eventually learned, accounted for the terrible fatigue and it had also made her dizzy.

But it wasn’t her own wellbeing that she worried about most. It was her children’s. Try as she might, she couldn’t hide from them the fact that she wasn’t well. They asked her questions: Why was she dizzy all the time? Why was she taking those pills from the doctor?

And one day she came home to find a glass of milk on the table. Her son, worried about her, had poured it. He made her drink it while he watched – to make sure she had it all.

“It shouldn’t be like that,” she says. “Kids shouldn’t be worrying about their parents like that.”

Today, her biggest concern is not that her physical health took a hit, but that her children’s mental health did. What psychological scars were left, in the wake of watching their mother starve herself?

What happened to Wright and her family is common to far more households in wealthy countries than some may think. Food insecurity, also known as food poverty, is on the rise in the UK, the ninth-richest country in the world. The exact extent is unknown. But many other countries are struggling with this problem. There are millions of families in Europe, the US and Canada, for example, that are facing food insecurity right now.

Food banks, which hand out free supplies of food to those in need, have become more and more common in places where food insecurity has become a persistent problem. (The Trussell Trust, which runs food banks in the UK, recently reported a 19% year-on-year increase in the number of food parcels dished out in the UK – up to 1.6 million in total.) But even groups like the Trussell Trust agree that food banks cannot be a long-term solution. The food they provide can vary in quantity and quality – often it is nutritionally limited. Systemic reform, charitable organisations say, is needed to stop families falling into the hunger trap.

Scientists have shown that hunger isn’t just something transient. Hunger during childhood can have a ripple effect that we are only just beginning to understand. The long-term physical and psychological consequences of hunger are serious and have implications for the health of society itself. Food insecurity may be a ticking time-bomb for today’s hungry generations – just how dangerous is it?

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