Health and Nutrition Fund

The Pain of Hunger

When hunger pangs strike, satisfying the physical sensation should be as simple as eating something. But for hundreds of millions of people, lack of food access makes the sensation of hunger a near-constant state.

Improving food access for the those who need it most requires understanding the relationship between poverty and hunger.

What is the Definition of Hunger?

Hunger is a physical sensation the body experiences. It signals a lack of nutrients and a need for nourishment. We all experience hunger, but when food security (i.e., dependable and consistent access to healthy food) is disrupted, hunger becomes chronic.

What is Food Insecurity?

Food insecurity refers to a lack of regular access to safe and nutritious food that’s needed to live a well-balanced, active and healthy life.

The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) uses two indicators to estimate the extent of hunger and undernutrition in the world as well as the global community’s progress toward the United Nations’ second Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 2) — a world with zero hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition.

  • The Prevalence of Undernourishment (PoU) indicator.
  • The Food Insecurity Experience Scale (FIES).

The FAO uses the PoU indicator to monitor hunger and food crises at the global and regional levels. It uses country data on food availability, food consumption and energy needs to estimate the adequacy of a population’s dietary energy intake1. The number of hungry people in the world has historically been determined with the Prevalence of Undernourishment indicator1.

The FAO uses the FIES to estimate the percentage of a country’s population facing food insecurity. The data is collected through interviews, and it can be used to measure food insecurity at the individual or household level.

For example, a household experiencing moderate food insecurity may occasionally miss meals, and when they do eat, it may not be highly nutritious food. Someone facing severe food insecurity may go entire days without eating. This could be because they don't have money to buy food or because environmental factors, job insecurity or global economic events are limiting food access.

What Causes World Hunger?

There are multiple causes of chronic hunger and food insecurity in the world. A few contributing factors include:

  • Inflation: The value of money decreases when there's inflation, causing food prices to rise. Some individuals then have less buying power, forcing them to buy less (and lower quality) food.
  • Natural disasters: From floods to wildfires to drought and earthquakes, weather and climate change-related catastrophes destroy crops and farmland. This depletes food supply, increases the cost of bringing food to market and raises food prices.
  • Disease, war or other disruptive events: Whether it's an ongoing civil war or an infectious disease outbreak, events that damage infrastructure often lead to shortages that cause hunger crises. 
  • Unequal distribution of wealth: Some parts of a country may be affected by extreme poverty that lingers for generations, while others are more affluent. Unlike those who are more affluent, people in poverty don’t have savings to help them weather hardships. So when a crisis like any of those listed above strikes and food prices inevitably rise as a result, the poor aren’t able pull on reserves to afford the nutritious food they need.

How Did the Coronavirus Pandemic Impact Global Hunger and Food Insecurity?

To slow the virus’ spread, many governments imposed lockdowns. While this slowed disease spread, it also hindered access to food for some and decreased food supplies by interrupting the normal flow of commerce.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, both moderate and severe food insecurity increased in 20202. An estimated 30.4 percent of the world's population did not have access to food at some point during that year2. That compares to a food insecurity rate of approximately 26 percent in 20192. 

The total effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on chronic hunger (and many other poverty-related issues such as homelessness and education access) will become clearer as time goes on. For now, we see that regions where severe hunger was already widespread grew worse. Early indications suggest that up to 811 million people were undernourished in 20203. That’s an additional 118 million more in 2020 than in 20193.

Which Countries are Most Affected by Severe Hunger?

The fight to end hunger is a global effort because every part of the world is affected by it. This even includes the United States, where obesity is more of a problem than undernourishment.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, approximately 38.3 million Americans don't have enough food to eat, which is a rate of approximately 1 in 104. This compares to an obesity rate of 4 in 10, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention5.

Hunger is far more prevalent in other countries. The World Food Programme (WFP) estimates that 60 percent of the world's hungriest people live in these 13 countries.

  • The Democratic Republic of Congo.
  • Afghanistan.
  • Yemen.
  • Nigeria.
  • Ethiopia.
  • Syrian Arab Republic.
  • Sudan.
  • South Sudan.
  • Haiti.
  • Zimbabwe.
  • Burkina Faso.
  • Honduras.
  • Central African Republic.

In virtually all of these countries, chronic hunger worsened in the aftermath of the coronavirus. In 2020, 46 million more people experienced hunger in Africa than in 20196. 2020 also saw hunger in Asia rise by 57 million people6 and hunger in Latin America increase by 14 million6.

What are the Long-Term Effects of Hunger?

The body depends on vital nutrients from food to fuel basic human functions. Over time, the side effects of malnutrition can be severe. This is especially true in hungry children, whose immune systems aren't as developed and who have less fat and muscle reserves. The body draws from those reserves when it doesn't get the nutrition it needs from food.

The consequences of hunger can be life-altering, from greater susceptibility to infection to impaired brain function. In some cases, tragically, hunger can be life-ending. 
These are just some of the long-term effects of hunger:

  • Seizures caused by vitamin deficiencies.
  • Potential to develop asthma.
  • Increased chance of rickets, a bone disorder caused by insufficient vitamin D. 
  • Fatigue and tiring out more easily than those who are properly nourished. 
  • Less likely to finish school due to adverse effects on mental development.

How Does Compassion International Fight Hunger?

To fight hunger and food insecurity, we partner with local churches around the world to implement early intervention health and nutrition initiatives. These provide individualized care and attention for millions of children affected by poverty.

Our frontline church partners are trained to identify child hunger and take immediate action to address it. Often, this hunger relief involves providing emergency feeding and vitamins for severely malnourished children as well as working with caregivers to address long-term wellness and ensure that meals at home meet nutritional needs.

Our church partners also provide children with regular nutritious meals and snacks on program activity days. They teach the children about the importance of a balanced diet and ways to eat healthy outside of program activity days.

By giving to our Health and Nutrition Fund, you provide supplemental food, vitamins and medical care to malnourished children. Not only that, but you provide resources to help run sustainable programs for therapeutic feeding and food stability. These initiatives work to prevent hunger and support long-term wellness.

Your donation will protect children from illnesses that stunt their early childhood development and threaten their lives.

Donate today to provide:

  • Food assistance through nutritious food kits that include essentials like rice, eggs, meat, milk, corn and other nonperishable dry goods.
  • Therapeutic feeding for babies, children, youths, caregivers and siblings.
  • Nutrition assistance for pregnant mothers and infants.
  • Preventive care programs to stop hunger before it becomes chronic.
  • Income-generating activities that address food insecurity long term.

Give With Confidence

With Compassion, your donation is used wisely to help children around the world.

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Please call us at 800-336-7676, Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. MT to speak with a Compassion representative.


1 "Hunger." Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations,

2 "2.1.2 Severity of Food Insecurity |" Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Accessed 19 Apr. 2022.

3 "UN Report: Pandemic Year Marked by Spike in World Hunger." World Health Organization,

4 "Key Statistics & Graphics." USDA ERS - Key Statistics & Graphics,

5 "Adult Obesity Facts." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 30 Sept. 2021,

6 FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP and WHO. 2021. The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2021. Transforming food systems for food security, improved nutrition and affordable healthy diets for all. Rome, FAO.