Since 2020, the global food crisis has escalated, plunging millions of people into food insecurity. Many of these people were already vulnerable to greater food insecurity, and initial predictions indicate that the fallout of 2020 could double the number of people facing acute food crises (especially in some of the world’s hungriest countries).

The measures that people must take to survive even temporary food shortages can be risky and have devastating long-term consequences. Here are ten of the most common negative coping mechanisms that people turn to when their food runs out.

1. Eating lower-quality foods

Concern’s Senior Adviser on Food & Nutrition Security Regine Kopplow notes that many families experiencing a food shortage will stretch their budgets by going for cheaper foods that are often low in nutritional value. “We see this now due to COVID, that people do this nearly as often as reducing the number of meals.”

According to a Concern survey of families in Bangladesh, the DRC, Haiti, Kenya, and Malawi, 63.7% of respondents said they have resorted to eating lower quality food since incomes and food systems were interrupted by the pandemic. (68.8% reported eating less food.) This is especially true in more urban areas where fewer families are relying on agriculture for their livelihoods and food.

This coping mechanism “is fine for a short period,” Koppolow adds. “But it will have longer-term impact as people, especially those that are nutritionally most vulnerable such as young children and pregnant and lactating women, might develop micronutrient deficiencies over time.”

Congolese woman prepares breakfast for her family in Manono Territory, DRC
Mado Kabulo, 29, prepares breakfast to share with her husband Eric and their children in the village of Pension, Manono Territory, DRC. (Photo: Hugh Kinsella Cunningham / Concern Worldwide)

2. Turning to neighbors, friends, and family

In Northern Bahr el Ghazal, the poorest state of South Sudan, people often ask their families and communities for food when faced with food insecurity. Sometimes, they’ll offer to do work such as weeding in return.

However, resources in a state like Northern Bahr el Ghazal are limited on the whole without much of a local food system or infrastructure. Communities cannot indefinitely sustain this short-term solution to a long-term problem.

3. Foraging for wild foods

“When the wild fruits are there and they are ripened, the animals and I consume them and that is what has kept us going all this time,” says pastoralist Ng’ikario Ekiru, who lives in the Turkana region of Northern Kenya. Ekiru and her family have been hit hard by the effects of the climate crisis in the region, which has been plagued by drought for much of the last decade.

But foraging is unreliable and energy-intensive. There’s no guarantee you will find enough to feed your family. Mothers are also often forced to leave young children alone at home in order to forage. Ekiru adds that the berries she forages (which take some time to regrow after she picks them) give her children stomach aches, but that it’s the only option they have. “When it is gone, it pushes us to the extreme.”

In South Sudan, similar measures have been taken by families living in displacement driven by conflict. In 2014, Nyalada Maluit and her two-year-old son arrived in one displacement camp after fleeing violence their home southeast of Bentiu some months earlier. In between, they lived in the bush, drinking from the stream and boiling water lilies for food as long as they could. “There was no food, no more water lilies,” Nyalada says of her decision to find a displacement camp. “We came here seeking protection and food.”

Wild fruits foraged in Marsabit, Kenya
Wild fruits foraged by Ng’ikario and her family. They give them stomach aches, but are sometimes the only source of food they can find. (Photo: Gavin Douglas / Concern Worldwide.)

4. Harvest immature crops

We’ve mentioned the hunger seasons that communities experience between their food supplies running out and the next harvest. In certain situations, families may resort to harvesting immature crops as a much-needed stopgap. In Northern Bahr el Ghazal, South Sudan, more than 16% of families did this. Not only does this result in lower overall harvests, it also reduces the quality of the food.

“The issue with harvesting immature crops is that your yield is less than when harvesting once it is fully ripe,” explains Kopplow. “Depending on the stage of maturity, the food is less digestible and shelf life is reduced due to higher moisture content. You would have to dry for longer but then people want to eat or sell it more or less immediately.”

"It might feed them today, but they will have less — or, in the worst scenario, nothing left — to plant for the next agriculture season."

5. Eating seeds

The stocks of seeds that farming families hold for the next season or receive following an emergency (such as 2019’s Cyclone Idai, which decimated crops near-ready to be harvested) may be consumed before even going into the ground. This carries an especially severe impact as it also means, unless families borrow or ask friends and neighbors for additional seeds, that they won’t be able to count on the yields of that harvest (which are both a source of food and income).

“It might feed them today, but they will have less or in the worst scenario nothing left to plant for the next agriculture season,” says Kopplow.

Cabbage seedlings protected by bowls against crickets
Abraham Gaye (70) uses old bowls to protect his cabbage seedlings against crickets. The crickets come from under the ground and eat the young leaves. (Photo: Gavin Douglas/ Concern Worldwide)

6. Eating whatever is available — even if it isn’t food

In Haiti, Concern Ambassador and chef Gabe Kennedy encountered the bonbon tè, mud cookies that are ubiquitous in areas subject to food shortages like Cité Soleil. The process of making these cookies involves straining dirt specifically trucked in from a plateau near the central town of Hinche, mixed with salt, fat, and water, and baked in the sun.

The cookies are especially popular with pregnant women and children as the dirt is high in minerals like calcium, but there are still health risks that come with eating dirt, many of which outweigh the mineral content.

Likewise, in Turkana, Kenya, Ng’ikario will use the animal hides that line her home when there are no berries to be foraged. “I turn to the old hides and skins. I roast them and that is what we consume,” she explains.

Dirt cakes, aka bon bon te, at a market in Haiti
Dirt cakes, aka bon bon te, at a market in Haiti

7. Limiting portion sizes at mealtime

If there are no other options during a food shortage, families will eat smaller meal portions to stretch out a food supply. In Malawi, a 2018 survey of 3,330 families conducted as part of Concern’s Graduation program in the country showed that two main shocks (drought and attacks on crops by pests) could trigger a change in how much was eaten. Of the families surveyed, 65% of families had on at least one occasion reduced the food portion sizes for adults (54% did the same for children).

This isn’t unique to Malawi. Other communities where Concern works have made similar sacrifices when food security is nonexistent.

8. Skipping meals altogether

As mentioned in point number 1 (eating lower-quality foods), families are nearly as likely to skip meals altogether if they aren’t able to get lower quality foods or eat three meals a day of limited portion sizes. Women are more likely to do this than their male counterparts. Revisiting the survey from Malawi that we referenced in point 7 (above), while 65% of adults had reduced their food portion sizes at least once, 28% had also reported going without food for at least an entire day in 2018.

With less food, whether incremental through smaller portion sizes or more drastic through skipped meals, people often earn less money and are more susceptible to health issues. The consequences for small children can be especially serious, leading to malnutrition and stunting.

9. Selling livestock

We’ve worked with countless families who have raised money by selling their chickens, goats, and cows for a quick and vital windfall. However, farmers and pastoralists also rely on these animals as a primary source of income, which means that — much like eating seeds — selling them can result in major financial problems in the future. For many, that future is hard enough to imagine when trying to survive the present.

Somali pastoralist with two of her children
Pastoralist and mother Nimco with two of her four children. Their area of Somalia has been turned into a dust bowl by the Horn of Africa drought. Their flock has been reduced to a few remaining sheep and goats, which Nimco's husband took in search of water and pasture in other regions. The whole family wasn't able to afford to move, so Nimco has remained with the children. (Photo: Ed Ram / Concern Worldwide)

10. Traveling, breaking up a family, or moving away

Residents of Northern Bahr el Ghazal often walk two to three days to swampy areas where they can gather wild cassava that is then milled into flour for cooking. Many parents would bring their children along as there was no other way to care for them, though the toll of the journey hits many children the hardest.

In the same region, men have often left their families to work elsewhere for a few months at a time, sending their salaries home. Migrant labor is one of the most prevalent solutions in cases like this — Nigerien men may spend entire seasons in countries like Côte d’Ivoire in order to support their families. This becomes a problem, however, in a year like 2020, where borders are closed (a frequent risk in many of these areas that are also susceptible to conflict and crisis). Systems for transferring cash also break down.

Poverty and its effects — including hunger — is one of the reasons that parents may marry off their daughters while they are still children, reducing the number of mouths to feed in their own family. Other times, entire families will pick up and move, abandoning their homes in hopes of a better outlook in a different region or country.

How Concern helps when food runs out

Hunger is, like poverty, an intersectional issue. This means that the solutions to hunger also need to be multi-pronged, looking at both how to fix the very present, urgent need for food while also planning ahead for the future. But this doesn’t mean that the solutions need to be overly complicated.

For instance, when we respond to emergencies that affect farming communities, we not only want to provide seeds and tools to help farmers recover lost crops, we want to make sure that those seeds are shorter cycle or faster growing, to not double the wait time between harvests. We also make sure that families have cash, vouchers, or food kits to keep food on the table now while they re-plant for their future.

We take a similar approach with our Graduation programs. As we mentioned a few times in the examples above, many of the decisions families make are short-term solutions to long-term issues. Eliminating the need for that decision goes a long way to reducing the impact of unexpected shocks and allowing people to maintain financial empowerment in the event of an emergency.

This is a constant process of trial and error, and sometimes even incremental improvements still constitute a major success. We’re moving backwards in terms of progress to Zero Hunger. But knowing the alternatives is one of the reasons we continue to do the work that we know will succeed, and find new and dynamic ways to achieve even more success.

Support Concern's work

*Many of these coping mechanisms are adapted from the World Food Programme’s Coping Strategies Index, which quantifies the level of food shortage based on how many, and how often, strategies are used in response to food insecurity.