For People Fleeing Central America, Hunger May Not Look Like Hunger

Apr 23, 2019
9:42 AM

Migrant mother feeds instant noodle soup to her two young girls in Tijuana. (Photo by Francisco Lozano/Latino Rebels)

By Emily Yates-Doerr and Megan A. Carney

Public support for Central American migrants is waning, the Associated Press reported on Monday. Yet the plight of Central Americans grows steadily worse. The number of families seeking asylum is at an all-time high. Parents seeking to enter the United State widely report being unable to feed their babies. Weather events and global conflicts are set to plunge millions more into food disaster.

In the comments of a recent publication, readers fixated on the question: how can asylum seekers really be hungry, when they’re fat? One reader even ventured to render a meme of immigrants at the U.S.-Mexico border that questioned their legitimacy on the basis of body size.

The question of who counts as deserving of support and care is especially important right now given Trump’s declaration that he would close the U.S. border and also cut all foreign aid, including food aid, to the regions in Central America that are hardest hit by climate conflicts and food insecurity. The question is also important given the record numbers of mothers and children who are still being held in cages at the U.S. border.

Americans often reject the notion that people displaced by hunger can have rotund bodies. This is incorrect. People seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border are routinely food insecure, but they are not always, or even often, thin. The World Health Organization for instance estimates that roughly 65% of Guatemalans (a population arriving to the U.S.-Mexico border in record numbers) are either overweight or obese. Guatemala has the third highest rates of chronic malnutrition in the world, according to the World Bank.

The globalization of processed and high-sugar food means that people in Central America frequently have enough calories, without getting vital nourishment. Scientists refer to this as a “double burden,” recognizing how obesity is often concurrent with malnourishment.

Our long-term research on Central American migration has shown that the fact that hunger does not often appear as thinness is yet another burden to its treatment and care.

The stigma around misrepresentations of hunger hits mothers especially hard. In Guatemala, women who are classified as overweight frequently give birth to underweight children. Rather than be greeted by compassion from the public, they are instead treated as if they’re intentionally withholding resources from their babies.

The same holds true for people experiencing hunger in the U.S., even though the U.S. government refuses to use the term “hunger” in its formal research and reporting. Among Central American migrants who come into contact with public health workers in the U.S., they are told to worry about their children being chubby and to help them avert a lifetime of struggle with overweight and obesity. Instead of experiencing improved access to food, migrant families —especially women and children— are the targets of blame and shame.

People who do not suffer from chronic, devastating hunger think of hunger as the physiological sensation that arises when anticipating a meal and wanting to eat. In contrast, for many in Central America, hunger may be so constant that it is not felt. For them, hunger is neither temporary, nor satiable; it becomes an enduring state of being that manifests as metabolic disease.

To be sure, we must not stigmatize fat bodies as unhealthy. People can be fat and in great metabolic health. The point is rather that we must cultivate a deeper understanding of hunger that acknowledges that those experiencing it may not match our preconceptions of what hunger looks like. This is not a time to turn away from the protection of human rights, but a time to redouble our support for the people at the US-Mexico border who are in desperate need of care.

With millions potentially displaced by impending food crises, will we continue to scrutinize their bodies for a set of visible conditions to support their deservingness? Rather than close our doors, we must recognize the many hungers that people are fleeing and put political pressure on our leaders to welcome them in and offer relief. We must also begin to develop food sovereignty strategies that lessen hunger’s burdens, so that lives in refugees’ home countries can become livable again.


Emily Yates-Doerr is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam and Oregon State University and author of The Weight of Obesity: Hunger and Global Health in Postwar Guatemala (University of California Press). She is a European Research Council Grant Starting Grant Laureat. Follow her on Twitter @eyatesd.

Megan A. Carney is Assistant Professor in the School of Anthropology at the University of Arizona and author of The Unending Hunger: Tracing Women and Food Insecurity Across Borders (University of California Press). She is also Director of the UA Center for Regional Food Studies and a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @megan_a_carney.