The human cost of a food shortage: 10 things people do when their food runs out

November 30, 2020
Photo by Kevin Carroll

When people run low on food, they’re forced to make difficult choices — and sometimes the things they must do to survive can have destructive consequences.

A global pandemic, a devastating outbreak of locusts, and an economic downturn affecting every corner of the world has rapidly escalated food shortages for millions of people in 2020. Many of these people were already vulnerable to greater food insecurity, and initial predictions indicate that the fallout of 2020 could double the number of people facing acute food crises (especially in some of the world’s hungriest countries). 

The measures that people must take to survive even temporary food shortages can be risky and have devastating long-term consequences. Here are ten of the most common negative coping mechanisms we’ve seen in recent years in the communities we work with that show what happens when the food runs out.

1. Eating lower-quality foods

As Concern’s Senior Adviser on Food & Nutrition Security Regine Kopplow notes, many families experiencing a food shortage will stretch their budgets by going for cheaper foods that are often low in nutritional value. Kopplow says that “we see this now due to COVID, that people do this nearly as often as reducing the number of meals.” 

63.7% of families surveyed across three continents have switched to lower-quality food due to COVID-19–related food shortages and income loss.

According to a Concern survey of families in Bangladesh, the DRC, Haiti, Kenya, and Malawi, 63.7% of respondents said they have resorted to eating lower quality food since incomes and food systems were interrupted by the pandemic. (68.8% reported eating less food.) This is especially true in more urban areas where fewer families are relying on agriculture for their livelihoods and food. 

This coping mechanism “is fine for a short period,” Kopplow adds. “But it will have longer-term impact as people, especially those that are nutritionally most vulnerable such as young children and pregnant and lactating women, might develop micronutrient deficiencies over time.” 

Ayak Bol at a food distribution in Northern Bahr el Ghazal, South Sudan

Ayak Bol at a food distribution being carried out by Concern Worldwide and World Food Programme (WFP) in Northern Bahr el Ghazal, South Sudan. A mother of five, Ayak says she can no longer breast feed her 7 month old because of hunger. (Photo: Kieran McConville)

2. Turning to neighbors, friends, and family

In Northern Bahr el Ghazal, the poorest state of South Sudan, people often ask their families and communities for food when faced with food insecurity. Sometimes, they’ll offer to do work such as weeding in return. 

However, resources in a state like Northern Bahr el Ghazal are limited on the whole without much of a local food system or infrastructure. Communities cannot indefinitely sustain this short-term solution to a long-term problem. 

3. Foraging for wild foods

“When the wild fruits are there and they are ripened, the animals and I consume them and that is what has kept us going all this time,” pastoralist Ng’ikario Ekiru told us last year in the Turkana region of Kenya. Ekiru and her family have been hit hard by the effects of the climate crisis in northern Kenya, which has been plagued by drought for much of the last decade. 

But foraging is unreliable and energy-intensive — there is no guarantee you will find enough to feed your family, or even match the energy you used looking in the first place. Mothers are also often forced to leave young children alone at home in order to forage. Ekiru adds that the berries she forages (which take some time to regrow after she picks them) give her children stomach aches, but that it’s the only option they have. “When it is gone, it pushes us to the extreme.”

In South Sudan, similar measures have been taken by families living in displacement driven by conflict. In 2014, Nyalada Maluit and her two-year-old son arrived in one displacement camp after fleeing violence their home southeast of Bentiu some months earlier. In between, they lived in the bush, drinking from the stream and boiling water lilies for food as long as they could.  

“There was no food, no more water lilies,” Nyalada says of her decision to find a displacement camp. “We came here seeking protection and food.”

Stripping maize cobs

Fatima Guwira lost all of her crops to the floods that devastated Nsanje district, Malawi in January of 2015. With help from Concern and FAO she grew winter crops which helped to not only feed the family but also raise income for a new home and provide seeds for the coming season.

4. Harvest immature crops

We’ve discussed before the hungry seasons that communities experience between their food supplies running out and the next harvest. In certain situations, families may resort to harvesting immature crops as a much-needed stopgap. In Northern Bahr el Ghazal, more than 16% of families did this. Not only does this result in lower overall harvests, it also reduces the quality of the food. 

“The issue with harvesting immature crops is that your yield is less than when harvesting once it is fully ripe,” explains Kopplow. “Depending on the stage of maturity, the food is less digestible and shelf life is reduced due to higher moisture content. You would have to dry for longer but then people want to eat or sell it more or less immediately.”

“It might feed them today, but they will have less — or, in the worst scenario, nothing left — to plant for the next agriculture season.” — Regine Kopplow, Senior Advisor, Food and Nutrition Security, Concern Worldwide

5. Eating seeds 

The stocks of seeds that farming families hold for the next season or receive following an emergency (such as 2019’s Cyclone Idai, which decimated crops near-ready to be harvested) may be consumed before even going into the ground. This carries an especially severe impact as it also means, unless families borrow or ask friends and neighbors for additional seeds, that they won’t be able to count on the yields of that harvest (which are both a source of food and income). 

“It might feed them today, but they will have less — or, in the worst scenario, nothing left — to plant for the next agriculture season,” says Kopplow. 

6. Eating whatever is available — even if it isn’t exactly food

In Haiti, Concern Ambassador and chef Gabe Kennedy encountered the bonbon tè, mud cookies that are ubiquitous in areas subject to food shortages like Cité Soleil. The process of making these cookies involves straining dirt specifically trucked in from a plateau near the central town of Hinche, mixed with salt, fat, and water, and baked in the sun. 

The cookies are especially popular with pregnant women and children as the dirt is high in minerals like calcium, but there are still health risks that come with eating dirt, many of which outweigh the mineral content. 

Woman with goat herd outside her home in Turkana, northern Kenya

Ng’ikario Ekiru with the last of her goat herd outside their home in Turkana, northern Kenya. She is feeding her family with wild desert fruit and roasted animal hides as the area experiences the second drought in three years.
Photo: Gavin Douglas / Concern Worldwide

Likewise, in Turkana, Ng’ikario will use the animal hides that line her home when there are no berries to be foraged. “I turn to the old hides and skins. I roast them and that is what we consume,” she explains.

7. Limiting portion sizes at mealtime

If there are no other options during a food shortage, families will eat smaller meal portions to stretch out a food supply. In Malawi, a 2018 survey of 3,330 families conducted as part of Concern’s Graduation program in the country showed that two main shocks (drought and attacks on crops by pests) could trigger a change in how much was eaten. Of the families surveyed, 65% of families had on at least one occasion reduced the food portion sizes for adults (54% did the same for children). 

This isn’t unique to Malawi; other communities where Concern works have made similar sacrifices when food security is nonexistent. 

Make hunger a thing of the past

8. Skipping meals altogether 

As mentioned in point number 1 (eating lower-quality foods), families are nearly as likely to skip meals altogether if they aren’t able to get lower quality foods or eat three meals a day of limited portion sizes. Women are more likely to do this than their male counterparts. Revisiting the survey from Malawi that we referenced in point 7 (above), while 65% of adults had reduced their food portion sizes at least once, 28% had also reported going without food for at least an entire day in 2018. 

With less food, whether incremental through smaller portion sizes or more drastic through skipped meals, people often earn less money and are more susceptible to health issues. The consequences for small children can be especially serious, leading to malnutrition and stunting.  

9. Selling livestock 

We’ve worked with countless families who have raised money by selling their chickens, goat, and cows for a quick and vital windfall. However, farmers and pastoralists also rely on these animals as a primary source of income, which means that — much like eating seeds — selling them can result in major financial problems in the future. For many, that future is hard enough to imagine when trying to survive the present. 

Elderly Nigerien man - portrait

Salifou Ahment, a 70-year-old farmer from Kossoma, used to struggle to feed his livestock during the dry season when grassland becomes scarce. Now, instead of having to travel miles to buy food, there is an animal feed ‘bank’, established by Concern, a short walk from his home. The bank, run by the community, keeps animal feed in stock all year round and sells to local farmers at a fair and affordable price.

10. Traveling, breaking up a family, or moving away

Residents of Northern Bahr el Ghazal, South Sudan, have — especially in recent years — walked two to three days to swampy areas where they can gather wild cassava that is then milled into flour for cooking. Many parents would bring their children along as there was no other way to care for them, though the toll of the journey hits many children the hardest. 

In the same region, men have often left their families to work elsewhere for a few months at a time, sending their salaries home. Migrant labor is one of the most prevalent solutions in cases like this — Nigerien men may spend entire seasons in countries like Côte d’Ivoire in order to support their families. This becomes a problem, however, in a year like 2020, where borders are closed (a frequent risk in many of these areas that are also susceptible to conflict and crisis). Systems for transferring cash also break down. 

Poverty and its effects — including hunger — is one of the reasons that parents may marry off their daughters while they are still children, reducing the number of mouths to feed in their own family. Other times, entire families will pick up and move, abandoning their homes in hopes of a better outlook in a different region or country. 

Empty plate beside a cooking fire.

How to break the cycle

Hunger is, like poverty, an intersectional issue. This means that the solutions to hunger also need to be multi-pronged, looking at both how to fix the very present, urgent need for food while also planning ahead for the future. But this doesn’t mean that the solutions need to be overly complicated. 

For instance, when we respond to emergencies that affect farming communities, we not only want to provide seeds and tools to help farmers recover lost crops, we want to make sure that those seeds are shorter cycle or faster growing, to not double the wait time between harvests. We also make sure that families have cash, vouchers, or food kits to keep food on the table now while they re-plant for their future. 

We take a similar approach with our Graduation programs. As we mentioned a few times in the examples above, many of the decisions families make are short-term solutions to long-term issues. Eliminating the need for that decision goes a long way to reducing the impact of unexpected shocks and allowing people to maintain financial empowerment in the event of an emergency. 

This is a constant process of trial and error, and sometimes even incremental improvements still constitute a major success. In 2020, we’re at the precipice of a new food crisis, and we’re starting to move backwards in terms of progress to Zero Hunger. But knowing the alternatives is one of the reasons we continue to do the work that we know will succeed, and find new and dynamic ways to even more success. 

*Many of these coping mechanisms are adapted from the World Food Programme’s Coping Strategies Index, which quantifies the level of food shortage based on how many, and how often, strategies are used in response to food insecurity.