Hunger And Malnourishment Has Many Faces

In this four-part series, we examine what malnourishment looks like in Metro Vancouver and explore how we can address this unnecessary phenomenon.

Despite plentiful outlets for food in our city – grocery stores, farmers markets, produce shops, urban farms, restaurants, cafes, food banks, soup kitchens, community kitchens, urban organic produce delivery – many residents are nevertheless malnourished.

Some are immediately recognizable by their emaciated bodies shuffling along the sidewalk, most commonly in the Downtown Eastside yet also in every neighbourhood (picture the frail elderly). Many others who are malnourished are not so easily recognized.

Malnourishment is more than hunger, but it can start with hunger pangs. We all have appetite, the desire to eat. Most of us experience occasional cravings, or the desire to eat something specific. We also know hunger, the need to eat.

Several hours after we eat, our bodies start to feel hunger pangs (stomach contractions), increasingly strong distress hormones, and altered emotions, irritability being one of the most common. This is a complex physiological process that should make us stop and consider that humans really are fascinating beings.

In her book Sweet Charity? Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement well-known American sociologist of food Janet Poppendieck explores the idea of hunger gradations. Some people are hungry when they have to eat the same, simple food all week. And their portions are often inadequate because they do not know how long they will need to make their rations stretch. Then there are the hungry, hungry those who do not have enough food to ease the growling in their stomachs.

At a recent community meal, I sat down next to Al, a man I’ve met a number of times. Al is usually an engaging conversationalist, but on this day he wasn’t himself. I tried a few times to get him talking, but when he seemed more annoyed than interested I focused on the others seated around us.

Halfway through the meal, Al began to participate in the table discussion, becoming his usual animated self. After the main course, while we were waiting for dessert, he said to no one in particular, “Man, I really needed that. I’d hardly eaten for two days.”

At Planted, we aim to change the conversation about how and what we eat, considering especially the more vulnerable among us. We champion innovative food programs that draw on the strengths of the community to foster dignity, food skills and health. We work toward the day when everyone in Metro Vancouver goes to bed with a full stomach and a nourished sense of self.

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