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Malaysia’s Hungry: A Constant Rumble Caused By Poverty?

According to World Hunger 2021, there are 690 million people that are hungry across the globe[1]. That is 21 times Malaysia’s population![2]

What Does It Mean To Be Hungry?

For most of us, we refer to hunger as a rumble in our tummies. That empty feeling we get when we skip a meal or haven’t eaten all day. Imagine feeling that emptiness every single day. That is hunger. Hunger is being deprived of enough food to function day after day. 

The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) refers to hunger as “the distress that is caused by a lack of calories necessary to live a healthy and productive life”[3].

The ‘necessary amount’ varies from person to person, depending on their sex, age, stature and physical activity[3]

Prolonged hunger can lead to possible severe life long problems. Similar to poverty, hunger is a slow and vicious cycle that permeates all areas of life such as poor nutrition, health problems, inability to work, inadequate education, unhealthy pregnancies and even mental degradation.


The issue of hunger is complex, somewhat unseen and scarce (in Malaysia), making it difficult to measure. Even if there are physical differences, these can only be observed in the long term. As a result, hunger is a hidden epidemic, where the problems are only identified when it is too late. 

Source: Brookings Institution

For example, indicators of prolonged hunger such as stunting can only be observed once the child has reached a certain age. 144 million children under the age of 5 are stunted across the globe[4]. Only a fraction of them has access to the necessary healthcare and diet to improve that. 

To understand the hunger problem, global experts refer to the Global Hunger Index (GHI) to see just how ‘hungry’ people are. 

What Is The Global Hunger Index (GHI)?

The Global Hunger Index is used to track hunger at global, national and regional levels. It uses four indicators to assess and raise awareness of the level of hunger a country is experiencing. These four indicators are: 

  1. Undernourishment: How much of the population are undernourished.
  2. Child Wasting: The number of children (under five years old) who have low weight for their height: acute undernourishment). 
  3. Child Stunting: The number of children (under the age of five) who have low height for their age: chronic undernourishment). 
  4. Child Mortality: The mortality rate of children (under the age of five) due to lack of nutrition and unhealthy environments[3].
Source: Global Hunger Index

The Causes Behind Rumbling Tummies 

There are countless reasons why so many people experience hunger. Poverty, job and income instability, food shortage, climate change, war and conflict, nutritional quality are just to name a few.

Food security is the means and access to good, nutritional, safe and affordable food. Food insecurity can occur even in the richest countries and experienced by all levels of society. It is also another factor leading to hunger. 

Globally food insecurity has been on the rise. The United Nations states that global populations affected by moderate or severe food insecurity have risen since 2014 (23.2%) to 26.4% in 2018[4]

Between 2017 and 2019 there were 2.1 million people in Malaysia who were faced with severe food insecurity[5].

Is There Enough Food To Go Around? 

In order to overcome this problem, there are four areas of food security that need to be observed. 

1) Availability and Accessibility of Food:  Can people get locally sourced food easily throughout the year? 

Source: New Straits Times

At a national level, food availability is a combination of domestic food production, food imports and exports, and domestic food stocks[6]. The availability of food refers to any food that has been bought or produced locally, available throughout the year and safe for consumption. 

Surprisingly, even though globally, small farmers, herders, and fishermen produce about 70% of the global food supply, yet they are the most vulnerable to food insecurity – poverty and hunger are most acute among rural populations[1]. This trend is similar to Malaysia.

Malaysians are going hungry because they are unable to purchase or produce their own food necessary for sustenance. The World Bank states that

This [inability to obtain food] is more prominent among those living in urban areas, where the poll results more than tripled from 8.6% to 28.7%. In rural areas, those who feel that they do not have enough money for food rose from 18.6% to 30%[7].

The issue of accessibility is more evident in the rural areas where infrastructure is not up to par, making it difficult for people to get food. In 2021, Sabah’s government delayed food aid throughout the state because there were several homes that were simply unreachable[8].

2) Affordability of Food: Can people afford to buy enough nutritious food? 

Source: Unsplash

While Malaysia has been constantly cracking down on poverty and has a higher GDP compared to other nations struggling with hunger, many Malaysians still experience high rates of malnourishment and impaired growth[9]. These are also indicators of prolonged hunger. 

A shocking 12% of Malaysian children have less than three meals a day, on top of these meals being far from nutritious[9].

This is due to a large portion of the population finding it difficult to afford food at the prices they are being sold. Let alone affording meals with the correct nutrition for their children [9].

A study among the urban poor households by Unicef revealed that 97% of households feel as though food is just too expensive making it nearly impossible to prepare healthy meals for their families[10].

3) Utilisation of Food: Are the correct foods being eaten? 

Source: Wiki Impact

A nation should not just be fed, it should be nourished. To ensure long term problems such as obesity, malnourishment and stunting do not continue, the nation’s people need to have a well-balanced diet that is affordable and accessible.  

Children are especially vulnerable to malnourishment and stunting as their nutrition influences how they will grow up. Missing key nutrients at an early age can cause irreversible damage.

The Institute for Public Health reports that 1 in 5 Malaysian children under the age of 5 were stunted in 2019. [11]

Most days our lunch and dinner will be white rice with a piece of chicken from a stall nearby that we cut into many small pieces to share. On better days, we may have some egg. – Rohana. Single mother of seven[10].

4) Stability of food: Is there a constant and consistent food supply? 

Source: Tootoomoo

Nutritious food needs to be available and accessible at all times for food stability to be achieved. For each household, if food supply remains constant during the year and in the long-term it is deemed stable. That includes food, income and economic resources. 

Some of the factors affecting food stability include drastic weather changes, natural disasters and fluctuating income[12].

How Can We Ensure All Malaysians Are Fed?  

Source: Conserve Energy Future

Despite thousands of Malaysians being affected by hunger, malnourishment and food insecurity, there is still not a lot of awareness on the severity of the issue. 

We need to help people in Malaysia and elsewhere be more aware of the link between nutrition and health, and we need to get more affordable, accessible and nutritious food products to market. – André Rhoen, Asia Pacific vice-president at nutrition and health firm Royal DSM[12].

A need to educate the public on health issues related to nutrition, reducing food prices and minimizing food wastage are all necessary steps that have to be taken. The relationship between poverty and hunger cannot be ignored.

Heroes Feeding The Hungry

Thankfully, there are several Malaysian NGOs that are doing the work to combat poverty and hunger in the country.

  • The Lost Food Project is a volunteer-run organization that provides people in vulnerable communities in Malaysia with surplus food; their goal is not only eliminating hunger in Malaysia but putting an end to food waste too.
  • Food Aid Foundation is a ‘Food Bank’ where manufacturers, distributors, wholesalers, retailers, companies or people can donate their unused or unwanted foods which will then be collected and distributed to charitable/welfare homes, volunteer welfare organisations, refugees community, poor families, destitute and soup kitchens.
  • Restoran Selera Masiun (Sabah) is a coffee shop set up in Sabah, that provides a bag filled with a packet of rice, sugar and flour each weighing 1kg, dry noodles, five eggs and a can of sardines to those that line up at the store every Friday and Saturday. 
  • Kechara Soup Kitchen is a community action group that distributes food to the homeless and urban poor in Malaysia. They have bases in KL, Johor, Penang and are looking to expand to East Malaysia. 
  • Community Excel Services (CES) is a Christian nonprofit charitable organization in Malaysia that offers counselling, legal services and community development programs for people in need. CES provides relief and services, development programs and advocacy. The organization’s Street Ministry involves reaching out to the homeless community and solidifying friendships with them through meal-sharing during weekly food banks and equipping them with workforce skills to enhance their employability.
  • KL SIKHS Community Services distributes food to vulnerable groups in Kuala Lumpur. They are stationed every Tuesday at 12noon at Gurdwara Sahib Kg. Pandan and 830pm at Kota Raya car park. 
  • PERTIWI Soup Kitchen is a humanitarian food-aid service to the homeless and hard-core poor irrespective of race or religion. The areas served are Chow Kit, Kota Raya and Masjid India on Sundays, Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Between 550-700 packets of food are served each night.
  • 30HourFamine: 30 years ago, World Vision began to raise awareness about how one child nearly every six seconds from hunger-related causes. How previously 1 in 6 children was constantly hungry in 1990 and currently it is only 1 in 12. They work hard to vocalize the severity of Hunger and have seen results.
  • Rise Against Hunger is an organization driven by the goal of universal zero hunger.  By providing food and aid to the world’s most vulnerable and creating a global commitment to mobilize the necessary resources, Rise Against Hunger works relentlessly to overcome hunger. They also make it a point to raise awareness of the severity of the problem. 

Explore Our Sources:

  1. Action Against Hunger. (2021). World Hunger: Key Facts and Statistics 2021. Link.
  2. Worldometer. (2021). Malaysia Population. Link.
  3. Global Hunger Index. (2015). Global Hunger Index. Link.
  4. United Nations. (2021). Goal 2. End Hunger, Achieve Food Security, and Improve Nutrition and Promote Sustainable Agriculture. Link.
  5. FAO. (2021). Malaysia. Link.
  6. M. N. Shamsudin. (2019). Food Insecurity: Coping Strategies and Policy Responds. UPM. Link.
  7. World Bank (2019). Malaysia Economic Monitor. Link.
  8. O. Miwil. (2021). Sabah govt’s delayed food aid due to unreachable addresses. New Straits Times. Link.
  9. S. Sharma. (2020). 7 Facts about Hunger in Malaysia. The Borgen Project. Link.
  10. Unicef. (2018). Child Without. Link.
  11. Institute for Public Health. (2020). National Health and Morbidity Survey 2019: Non-Communicable Diseases: Risk Factors and Other Health Problems. Shah Alam: Institute for Public Health, Ministry of Health. Link.
  12. EcoBusiness. (2020). How to tackle Malaysia’s hidden hunger epidemic. Link.

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