|The Hunger Trap (WFP)|
In households facing continuing hunger, babies in mothers'wombs,
the newborn and young children do not receive adequate nutrition. This results
in inadequate development of physical and mental capacities of the new
A physically and mentally weak new generation is doomed to
continue being hungry. It will have no chance of escaping from poverty. Poverty
stays because hunger has made it dynastic.
Hungry mother, hungry child
A hungry mother is the first link. What maternal malnutrition can
do to a child is devastating. It is a virtual guarantee of low birthweight,
stunted growth, susceptibility to disease, and, too often, intellectual
impairment. Mothers with small physical stature, who themselves have been
victims of hunger and poverty, tend to give birth to small babies. Why this
happens may be due to nutritional reasons (insufficient nutrition to the foetus)
or physiological reasons (growth potential of a foetus may be constrained in a
small woman). Whatever the reason, the relationship between maternal size and
birth-weight is strong and consistent. 
Low-birthweight babies begin life disadvantaged. The potential
damage from being born undernourished is compounded when further
undernourishment occurs during infancy and early childhood. The first taste of
poverty for a newborn is the scanty milk that comes from a malnourished mother.
An anaemic mother has neither the quality nor the quantity of breast milk needed
to help a low-birthweight baby. Early weaning is the usual way out but this puts
the child at severe risk of infections and disease.  Without breastmilk, an
infant's immune system does not develop properly. The infant becomes prone to
such diseases as malaria, respiratory tract infections and pneumonia. A hungry
mother means not just a hungry child but a sick and hungry child.
 Martorell, R. 1995. Promoting Healthy Growth: Rationale
and Benefits. In Per Pinstrup Andersen et al (eds). Child Growth and
Nutrition in Developing Countries. Priorities for Action. Cornell
University Press. New York. Ch. 2, 15-31.
 Mahalanabis, D. 1991. Breast-feeding and Vitamin A
deficiency among children attending diarrhoea treatment centre in Bangladesh.
British Medical Journal 303:493-96; Worthington-Roberts, B. 1990.
Maternal iron deficiency and pregnancy outcomes. In C.O. Enwonmu (ed
) The Functional Significance of Iron Deficiency. Meharry College .
Nashville, TN: 45-70.
Hungry child, hungry adult
Protein-energy malnutrition during the early stages of a child's
life can lead to permanent impairment of central nervous system functions.
Iodine deficiency in utero and iron deficiency during infancy may even
also cause permanent neurological damage. 
A person's physical work capacity is determined by his entire
nutritional history. Early nutrition and the extent of freedom from infections
leave a deep imprint. Resources permitting, some catch-up growth may occur
during later childhood or adolescence, but this process is slow and often
How an adult recognizes, thinks about and reacts, both mentally
and physically, to situations is primarily fashioned by the degree of childhood
development of cognitive and motor capacity. Such development is seriously
affected by undernutrition, both of energy and nutrients. Studies from
developing countries and developed countries as well have shown that treating
undernutrition during early stages of life can enhance motor and mental
development.  Such treatment would also reduce the differences in cognitive
development due to high and low socio-economic class. Malnutrition and
infections also do not allow proper school achievement by children; they affect
cognitive processes such as attention and concentration. There is evidence that
children who suffer from nutritional deficiencies and infections perform badly
in aptitude tests. 
Undernourished children adopt behavioural patterns to conserve
energy. These leave an imprint on the capacity to work in adulthood. Reduced
physical activity is a first natural response to low energy intake. If small
children are inactive and slow-moving, sleeping or lying down most of the time,
these are not demonstrations of ""laziness" but reflections of
behavioural adaptation to hunger. Inactive children with retarded growth do not
make productive adults.
The price that undernourished children will have to pay is low
productivity and low earning ability as adults. Almost always, this price is
 Fogel, R.W. 1992. Second thoughts on the European escape
from hunger: famines, chronic malnutrition and mortality. In S.Osmani (ed)
Poverty, Undernutrition and Living Standards . Oxford University Press.
 Pollit, E. et al. 1993. Early supplementary feeding and cognition: effects over two decades . In Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development . No 235. 58 (7).
 Pollit, E. 1990. Malnutrition and Infection in the Classroom . UNESCO. Paris.
Hungry households, hungry children
For children and mothers, the impact of inadequate food at the
household level is compounded by intra-household inequities in food
distribution. Often their food requirements receive a lower priority relative to
the food needs of the more physically productive adults. Adults in assetless
households, who seek wage employment, cannot find work easily unless they have
enough nutrition to perform satisfactorily for employers. Hence, unequal food
distribution in the household becomes a necessary evil.
A study of poor households in the Central Province of Sri Lanka
observed that infants and children began receiving their required amounts of
food only after the total food availability in the household was sufficient to
ensure a minimum of 1800 calories per day per working adult.  Without a
preference for the breadwinners, the very survival of poor households may be at
 Edirisinghe, N. 1986. The Food Stamp Scheme in Sri Lanka: Costs,
Benefits, and Options for Modification. International Food Policy Research
Institute. Research Report No. 58. Washington D.C.
Hunger has a long arm that reaches from childhood to adult life and even to
the generations that follow.
What can be done?