NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Are the Poor Eating the Wrong Kinds of Food?

May 5, 2011

Government efforts to help the poor are largely based on the idea that the poor desperately need food and that quantity is what matters.  But what if the poor are not, in general, eating too little food?  What if, instead, they are eating the wrong kinds of food, depriving them of nutrients needed to be successful, healthy adults? ask Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, directors of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Consider India, one of the great puzzles in this age of food crises:

  • The standard media story about the country, at least when it comes to food, is about the rapid rise of obesity and diabetes as the urban upper-middle class gets richer.
  • Yet the real story of nutrition in India over the last quarter-century is not that Indians are becoming fatter: It is that they are in fact eating less and less.
  • Despite the country's rapid economic growth, per capita calorie consumption in India has declined; moreover, the consumption of all other nutrients except fat also appears to have gone down among all groups, even the poorest.
  • Today, more than three-quarters of the population live in households whose per capita calorie consumption is less than 2,100 calories in urban areas and 2,400 in rural areas -- numbers that are often cited as "minimum requirements" in India for those engaged in manual labor.

The change is not driven by declining incomes; by all accounts, Indians are making more money than ever before.  Nor is it because of rising food prices -- between the early 1980s and 2005, food prices declined relative to the prices of other things, both in rural and urban India.  Although food prices have increased again, Indians began eating less precisely when the price of food was going down.  So the poor do not seem to want to eat much more even when they can.  What could explain this?  To start, let's assume that the poor know what they are doing.  If they could be more productive and earn more by eating more, then they probably would.  So could it be that eating more doesn't actually make us particularly more productive, and as a result, there is no nutrition-based poverty trap?

Source: Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, "More Than 1 Billion People Are Hungry in the World: But What if the Experts Are Wrong?" Foreign Policy, May/June 2011.

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