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United Nations says hunger still grips millions

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As Americans grapple with obesity and the nation considers programs to keep children from becoming overweight, the developing world is dealing with another reality.

Chronic hunger plagues 852 million people worldwide, according to the United Nations. Its annual report on hunger is released today.

More disturbing is that after falling for several years, the number of undernourished people in developing countries has begun to climb again. The number of hungry from 1999 to 2001 was estimated at 842 million. This year's report finds 852 million went hungry in 2000-2002, the last years for which numbers are available.

Malnutrition kills more than 5 million children every year and costs developing countries billions of dollars in lost productivity, according to the report, The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2004.

''More than 10 million children under the age of 5 die every year,'' says Florence Chenoweth, the Food and Agriculture Organization representative to the United Nations. ''And more than half of those deaths are caused directly or indirectly by hunger and malnutrition.

''If you do the math, that means that hunger kills one child every five seconds.''

Of special concern are the more than 20 million low-birth-weight babies who are born each year and who are more likely to die in infancy. The children who survive often suffer lifelong physical and cognitive disabilities because of deprivation in the womb. Lost productivity and income over the life of such children is estimated to cost the developing world $500 billion to $1 trillion.

Dealing with the problem is cost-effective, Chenoweth says: Every dollar invested in reducing hunger is estimated to yield five to more than 20 times as much in benefits.

But while the numbers are going the wrong way -- an increase of 10 million chronically hungry people -- there is hope, Chenoweth says.

''More than 30 countries . . . reduced the proportion of their populations who go hungry by more than 25% between 1990-1992 and 2000-2002.''

India and China accounted for the biggest drop in the number of hungry people. Africa saw the largest increases.

Hunger is associated in the minds of many Americans with famine. But many hungry people live where there is enough food; they simply can't afford it or are unable to get it because of political instability, according to U.N. reports.

Also, as the poor move from the countryside to cities to find work, they no longer can grow their own food and sometimes don't earn enough money to buy food.

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.


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