Child hunger: Key facts to know

Jul 31, 2023
Access to nutritious food is a fundamental human need. And yet, world hunger continues to affect hundreds of millions across the world at unprecedented levels. In 2022, over 700 million people faced hunger, according to the United Nations.

The problem of hunger is far more than just needing to eat—it's the chronic distress that comes with not having access to nutritious food and not having the strength to work and provide food.

Hunger impacts millions of people all over the world—but it affects children and youth in particularly devastating ways. Read on to learn more about child hunger and what you can do to help address it.
  1. What is the problem with child hunger?
  2. What happens when a child is hungry?
  3. Where is child hunger more common?
  4. What is childhood hunger in Canada?
  5. How do you help a hungry child?

1. What is the problem with child hunger?

Child hunger is a byproduct of various factors—most commonly poverty, conflict, climate change and rising costs. COVID-19 also deeply exacerbated world hunger, which was on the decline for the past decade until the pandemic happened.

Child hunger is a deeper problem within the broader issue of global hunger because of how children are specifically affected by severe malnutrition. Children—particularly those under the age of five years—are in developmental stages of life. As a result, hunger takes an especially hard toll on them physically and mentally and makes it harder for them to grow and learn.

In 2020, the World Health Organization found that 149 million children under the age of five years old were linked to undernutrition. Undernutrition happens when a person doesn’t get enough nutrients in their diet. Worldwide, 45 per cent of child deaths are due to hunger and related causes, according to Action Against Hunger.

Hunger can also destroy children’s futures. When families are unable to find or provide food for their household because of conflict, poverty or other factors, children suffer the most. Extreme hunger forces families to make desperate decisions in order to survive. These decisions often put children in dangerous situations, such as child marriage or dirty and dangerous child labour.

Four Somali women with their children sit and lie down on beds in a health clinic.These women and children are at the Trocaire Stabilization Centre in Dollow, Somalia to treat symptoms of severe and acute malnutrition. Somalia is currently facing extreme famine-like conditions due to an ongoing drought, with many Somalis migrating to find food. Photo: Gwayi Patrick

2.What happens when a child is hungry?

These are the biggest consequences of child hunger across the world.

Wasting and malnutrition
When hungry children don’t get the nutrients they need, they experience wasting and malnutrition. Wasting is the most immediate, visible and life-threatening symptom of malnutrition, when a child’s body is severely weak and too thin. Sometimes, affected children get nutritional oedema, characterized by the swelling in the face, feet and limbs. Wasting most commonly happens as a consequence of maternal malnutrition, poor feeding and care practices. More and more evidence reveals that wasting disproportionally affects children under two years old, according to UNICEF.

Low immune system
As a result of malnutrition caused by chronic hunger, a hungry child doesn’t receive the nutrients they need to build up a strong immune system. This leaves them more susceptible to diseases such as malaria, cholera or pneumonia. Malnourished children are up to nine times more likely to die from common infections than other better-nourished children.

Stunted growth
Lots of nutrients from healthy food are vital to children’s physical and mental growth and development. If a child doesn’t consume enough nutrients, their intellectual and physical development can be harmed, causing stunted growth, lifelong disability, mental disorders or developmental delays. When children have insufficient nutrients for a prolonged period of time, they may end up with irreversible damage to their bodies and brains.

A young Somali girl in a hijab in her classroom sitting at her desk with a pencil and a notebook.
This school in Biyacado, Somalia is currently experiencing a lot of absenteeism due to the ongoing drought. Most of the students’ parents are pastoralists who are forced to move when there’s no rain and pasture for their animals—impacting their children’s school attendance. Photo: Gwayi Patrick

Stunted future
Child hunger often has long-term effects on children’s futures. When children can’t concentrate in school because of an empty stomach or miss class because of sickness, hunger becomes a barrier to education, limiting opportunities for the future. Families are often forced to make desperate decisions because of hunger, including pulling children out of school to work for more household income. In even more dire situations, parents arrange child marriage to have one less mouth to feed.

3. Where is child hunger more common?

While child hunger is present across the world, in 2023, the countries with the highest prevalence of insufficient food consumption are Somalia, Afghanistan, Niger, Mali, Syrian Arab Republic, Haiti, Chad, Sierra Leone, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Yemen and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. according to the World Food Programme. These countries make up 30 per cent of the total number of people with insufficient food consumption.

A major factor influencing the problem of child hunger in many of these countries is conflict. When conflict happens in a country, food systems and markets are disrupted, which increases food prices and creates scarcities. Hunger and conflict are intertwined in a vicious cycle, where the scarcity of food and supplies can aggravate conflict.

A pink shoe rests on top of a slab of broken concrete, amidst the debris of a building in the background.
The Turkiye-Syria earthquakes in February  2023 disrupted already-fragile circumstances for the refugees and internally displaced families living in the area. Many families had to scramble to find shelter and warmth, alongside food and supplies.

Climate change is also a big driver of hunger in countries experiencing severe hunger. Severe weather events often directly affect crop production and livestock. In turn, this impacts the livelihoods of local farmers and the broader population of a country. In 2020, the World Food Programme reported that close to 16 million people across 15 countries were impacted by food crises caused by weather extremes, such as floods, droughts and earthquakes.

4. What is childhood hunger in Canada?

Child hunger also exists in Canada, with more than one third of food bank users in Canada being children—as many as up to 400,000 per month, according to Food Banks Canada. Global food price inflation has greatly affected the affordability of food for many families, with food banks reporting increases in their number of clients.

Proof, a food insecurity policy research group in Canada, found that 18.4 per cent of people living in Canadian provinces lived in a food-insecure household—about 6.9 million people, including almost 1.8 million children. Research has found that food insecurity in Canada also mostly affects racialized populations.

Rows of fresh vegetables in a grocery store sit under colourful signs with prices.
Global food price inflation across the world and in Canada mean that families often can’t afford fresh, nutrient-rich foods to feed their growing children, meaning increased reliance on food banks.

5. How do you help a hungry child?

Child hunger is a massive problem too big for a single person or country to fix. It takes a world to help end child hunger everywhere. You can be a part of making a positive difference for a hungry child in a variety of ways.

Give to local food banks
Child hunger exists all over the world, even right here in Canada. While food banks aren’t a permanent solution for food insecurity, they are a major support for food-insecure households in your area. If you can spare extra cash or rally a group of friends, find a food bank in your area to support with some much-needed groceries.

A group of Cambodian women sit on mats with bowls of food and their babies in their laps.
Fighting child hunger isn’t just a matter of handing out food to those in need—it also involves equipping parents with the knowledge and tools they need to help children grow strong and healthy. These mothers in Cambodia just finished a nutrition workshop where they learned how to cook nutritious food for their babies, which will help boost their children’s immune systems and become less disease-prone.

Support global efforts to fight hunger
Humanitarian organizations are on the frontlines of the global hunger crisis right now, delivering emergency food supplies and livelihood support to families and children struggling with hunger. As the World Food Programme’s biggest partner, World Vision works with communities to provide nutritious school meals and life-saving food packets to children in need, as well as train communities in climate-smart food production. Your gift to World Vision’s food programs would go a long way in helping eradicate extreme hunger for children everywhere—and supporting their journey towards a brighter future.

More stories for you

Bringing Hope and Stability to Mali - The Jigiya Project Discover the impact of World Vision's Jigiya Project in Mali. View our photo gallery and see how your support is bringing hope and stability to families in need.
Breaking the stigma around menstruation World Vision’s Youth Empowered Project is run in partnership with Global Affairs Canada. It is increasing awareness and education about girls’ menstrual hygiene management and its benefits.
Food insecurity: What you need to know Millions of people around the world struggle with food insecurity. Learn key facts about the issue and what you can do to help.