“Hunger is a Social Construct”

By: Anita Cheng

When I heard Dr. Banerjee make this statement in an NPR interview for his new book Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty, I was slightly taken aback. Certainly, I have heard race and gender described as social constructs, but hunger as well? Isn’t hunger a physiological manifestation from the lack of food? In the book, Dr. Banerjee examines how aid programs are not actually serving the needs of the poor. The majority of television advertisements requesting for viewers’ donations display emaciated individuals of the third world seeking nutrition. Dr. Banerjee shatters this age-old conception that the highest priority of the world’s poor is food. He argues that the poor are willing to make tradeoffs such as giving up some food in order to buy a television, just as the rich would. While survival is essential, finding ways to improve one’s life is just as important for this large demographic of the world. Dr. Banerjee raised the example that if you give a poor child some extra change, he or she would most likely purchase sweets instead of rice or bread.

Although Dr. Banerjee’s argument can be perceived as too radical or over-exaggerating the power the poor possesses to make these personal choices, it actually makes sense if one uses the lens of liberation theology to analyze the issue. During one of the last weeks of class, the topic of social and personal responsibility to health. One of the takeaway points was the importance of giving up some of our power as educated public health practitioners and acknowledge that the marginalized communities for whom we fight may actually hold the key to the solutions we are seeking to solve the problems they face. Liberation theology hones in on this point by underscoring how essential it is to be in solidarity with, engage in, and truly listen to the communities we are trying to empower.

Dr. Banerjee suggests a completely new way to infuse the diets of poor children with the nutrients they need – by investing in micronutrient-rich candy that is cheap and widely available (especially in schools). His method not only gauges the needs of the community but also maximizes benefits to the community by embracing instead of rejecting the behavior and personal choices made by the community. With Dr. Banerjee’s new methodology on helping the poor obtain what they need, is it possible to use the same framework in this country where the obesity epidemic is a much greater concern than malnutrition? Are there any behaviors of the obese population that we can embrace instead of reject?


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