August 30, 2017 | By Olamide Bisi-Amosun

Guest Commentary – Vox Populi: Looking at Malnutrition through the Eyes of the Malnourished

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is pleased to present the 2017 Next Generation Delegates blog series. This year’s Delegation was comprised of 20 outstanding students from universities across the United States and around the world studying agriculture, food, and related disciplines. We were thrilled to feature these emerging leaders at the Global Food Security Symposium 2017, and look forward to sharing the exciting work of this extraordinary group.

By Olamide Bisi-Amosun, PhD candidate, Youth Development & Agricultural Education, Purdue University, and 2017 Next Generation Delegate

Food insecurity remains one of the world’s major challenges, one that persists today in spite of huge investments committed towards its eradication. Investments towards increasing food productivity have often been an approach employed by agricultural development efforts to tackle food insecurity. This is because the majority of people suffering from undernutrition live in poor countries where the main source of livelihood is agriculture. Therefore, increased food productivity seems to be a win-win solution—when farming households produce more, they both earn more money, and will eat more (and better) food.

However, development efforts that focus only on gains in agriculture productivity and income miss an important point.

“The first thing I’ll do when I get more money is adopt a healthier diet” is a sentiment expressed by very few people, and least often expressed among the poor. What poor people want is a better life for themselves, not just a higher income: therefore it is not uncommon for people to spend additional earnings gained from increased agricultural yields on non-edible things that they consider valuable. For example, when asked what impact an agricultural credit project had on their lives, almost all the farmers in rural Western Kenya that were interviewed for Roger Thurow’s The Last Hunger Season Revisited indicated that extra earnings went towards education, and/or other investments. There are other instances of increased income going towards marriage rites, sacred religious rituals, or social celebrations.

Some might argue that poor people buy food first, and only spend their surplus on other things. Even if this is true, it’s overly simplistic to assume that the nutrition of their food will increase just because they have more income. This is evident in the simultaneous occurrence of undernutrition and obesity in the same household, community, or country. As incomes rise, diets change, and usually not for better. In developing countries, especially, you see traditional diets often abandoned for western diets, high in sugar and fats, once formerly poor people are able to afford junk food. There are also social and cultural factors that influence food consumption and distribution within households, which can lead to gender inequality, such as when women report eating last, and eating smaller portions than men. 

As evidence continues to show that increased food productivity alone is not sufficient to tackle food and nutrition insecurity, experts are finding that availability of nutritious foods does not guarantee nutrition security. Therefore, appropriate strategies for ending hunger and improving nutrition would be those that take into account both economic and noneconomic, as well as visible and underlying factors that influence nutrition outcomes. In light of this, a plenary session at the 2017 Chicago Council Global Food Security Symposium focused on how to measure what matters most to food and nutrition security.

The consensus is that diet quality is important for achieving food and nutrition security, however currently there is no internationally accepted definition of diet quality, nor are there diet quality indicators for nutrition outcomes. Diet quality indicators are largely lacking because the most commonly used research designs are based on quantitative analyses of large survey data which makes capturing diet quality and sociocultural factors influencing nutrition outcomes very challenging. Without indicators, how can strategies be designed to address appropriate areas or reach appropriate targets, and how do we measure progress?


Yet a man who uses an imaginary map, thinking that it is a true one, is likely to be worse off than someone with no map at all; for he will fail to inquire whenever he can, to observe every detail on his way, and to search continuously with all his senses and all his intelligence for indications of where he should go – E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful


Now that the lack of and need for diet quality indicators is being included in the nutrition security dialogue, development practitioners must humbly work hand-in-hand with the people affected by nutrition insecurity to discover these indicators. The voices of the malnourished must be heard—they should be allowed to share their experiences with regards to food, including their habits, norms, values, and beliefs.

Efforts should be made to understand how people define important concepts like poverty, hunger, and “appropriate/healthy” diet through collaborations with individuals, communities, and populations most vulnerable to malnutrition. An explanation of these issues from the perspectives of women will especially shed more light on the social and cultural factors underpinning malnutrition trends. This is because women are more likely than men to be affected by hunger, they are also usually in charge of food decisions and meal preparation in the household. The information gathered from such inquiries would be useful in the development of culturally-specific and culturally-relevant indicators that are key in assessing diet quality and malnutrition.

Having key players in the international agricultural development sphere express these opinions is particularly exciting for me as a social scientist. This approach, if adopted, would mean that people would finally be taking the center stage in development initiatives as it should be, and that the development community is catching on to the importance of not just letting people tell their own stories, but also having a say in how their lives are “improved.” After all, vox populi, vox Dei - the voice of the people, the voice of God.


Read previous blogs by the 2017 Next Generation Delegates:

Minimizing the Impacts of Agriculture on Water Resources

National Security is Food Security

Brazil, Africa, and Stability in the 21st Century 

Food Security, Sustainable Agricultural Production, and Nutrition in Sub-Saharan Africa

The Two Words Required to Sell Careers in Agriculture to Young People

Technology for Youth Engagement in the New Age of Agriculture

How Public and Private Partnerships Can Achieve a More Food-Secure World

Why a Practical Consensus on Animal Welfare Is Essential to Combating Climate Change 

Working Together in Times of Food Insecurity

To Vaccinate or Not to Vaccinate: The Dilemma for Chicken Farmers in Tanzania

Unifying the Next Generation through Open Data 

Food Security: Agriculture, Society, and Ecology 

Canada's Challenge: Ending Chronic Food Insecurity in the Far North

Nutrition Security in the 21st Century



The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


1,000 Days Blog, 1,000 Days

Africa Can End Poverty, World Bank

Agrilinks Blog

Bread Blog, Bread for the World

Can We Feed the World Blog, Agriculture for Impact

Concern Blogs, Concern Worldwide

Institute Insights, Bread for the World Institute

End Poverty in South Asia, World Bank

Global Development Blog, Center for Global Development

The Global Food Banking Network

Harvest 2050, Global Harvest Initiative

The Hunger and Undernutrition Blog, Humanitas Global Development

International Food Policy Research Institute News, IFPRI

International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center Blog, CIMMYT

ONE Blog, ONE Campaign

One Acre Fund Blog, One Acre Fund

Overseas Development Institute Blog, Overseas Development Institute

Oxfam America Blog, Oxfam America

Preventing Postharvest Loss, ADM Institute

Sense & Sustainability Blog, Sense & Sustainability

WFP USA Blog, World Food Program USA


| By Marshall M. Bouton

India's Mandate for Agricultural Reform

Chicago Council President Emeritus Marshall M. Bouton discusses challenges facing Indian agriculture and potential reforms to meet the government's goal of doubling farmer incomes by 2022.