Bowl of bean stew.

Cause of death: not enough money to buy food

“If people go hungry, it is often because food is unaffordable: our world is riddled with disparities in the cost of basic nourishment.”  The World Food Program illustrates this important and neglected fact In its recent publication: Counting the Beans: The True Cost of a Plate of Food Around the World. People starve in the midst of food–they just don’t have enough money to buy it.   In the United States most of us are accustomed to not spending very much of our income on food.  In developing countries,  the cost is higher, and very much higher in countries experiencing conflict,

To compare countries around the world, the WFP took a simple meal–a 600 calorie bean stew–and calculated how much of people’s average daily income it would take to buy the meal.

New York 0.6%

El Salvador 5.5%

Egypt 4.4%

India 4.5%

Uganda 14%

In countries with conflict

South Sudan 155%

Democratic Republic of Congo 40%

Nigeria (Northeast) 121%

Yemen (urban) 22%

In New York the cost is negligible. You can buy a bean stew, and have 99% of your income left.  In El Salvador, one simple bean stew meal would cost 5.5 percent of your income, three meals would cost 16.5 percent, and if you had to support a child, the cost of food could easily reach 30 percent of your income.  In countries with conflict, things are bad.  In South Sudan, the average person cannot afford even one meal a day–a day and a half’s income is necessary.  In the Democratic Republic of the Congo,  one meal costs 40 percent of the average income, two meals a day leaves very little to live on.  So in famine situations, food can be and is typically available in markets, it is just that many people cannot afford it.  Starvation exists in the midst of food.  If we were there in the country, we would see markets with food, and perhaps think: this is not so bad. This report gives us an important insight: in a market economy starvation occurs when people cannot afford to buy food, something that most of us in the United States, who can easily afford a bean stew, may have difficulty grasping.

Photo:  To compare countries around the world, the WFP took a simple meal–a 600 calorie bean stew–and calculated how much of people’s average daily income it would take to buy the meal.  It cost less than 1 percent of an average New Yorker’s income.  In South Sudan the average person could afford less than one full bowl a day. Credit: Luca Nebuloni

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