When in the contemporary western world one is confronted with hunger, we see those without sufficient food as victims. Whether we pass them in our daily commute or see the suffering of distant strangers in the news, we consider all of them as innocents who have been preyed upon by an unfair economical, political or social system and are entitled to help. Although this idea is taken for granted, James Vernon showed that is it the result of history of changing ideas surrounding the concept of hunger. For a long time it was seen as divine retribution for the sins of man. Hunger was bestowed upon by God himself and thus a test of endurance and faith. Christian values required others to contribute to charitable cases, yet the cause for hunger and poverty were seen to be a part of life itself. During the early modern period the element of morality took the centre stage in how hunger was perceived. Lack of access to food created food riots, which appealed to a sense of entitlement. However being hungry was also seen as an individual responsibility brought on by oneself. Poor houses were used to learn the indigent to work and appropriate much needed discipline. The flooding of workhouses by volunteers during times of crises show that more was going on.
These ideas however continued to live on through history, interacting and debating with one another. Both Adam Smith and Thomas Malthus opposed regulated help and state interference on behalf of the needy but for different reasons. To Smith this would hold back market competition, whilst Malthus saw it as a natural check on the morally weak, which he saw as a necessary part of the world.
The foregoing indicates that a need arises to understand definitions of what hunger represented for both those with and those without access to food to comprehend social and cultural interactions and political operations. What happened beyond material and biological constrictions when times of food insecurity turned to those of hunger? Which coping mechanisms were accessible? How does it affect experience, representation and remembrance? How does it alter the discourse and actions of those with power and within local, national and international governments? And most importantly, how does all this interact with existing ideas of what it means to be in a position in which one lacks the capability to live above the substance level? All of this can be read through the mediation of the thoughts and actions of everyone confronted with the lack of adequate nutrition, whether it was themselves or others who lived or died with shortages. Charitable organizations, political activists, nutritionists, social scientists, the spectacle of starvation in media, ration books and menus, songs, inventories and many others sources can shed light on what it meant both economically, politically but also socially and culturally to be without food both during times of prosperity and times of shortages, conflict and war.
On another scale, food and access to food can be used as a show of political, economic and military force. Access to food, conflicts and war have always been interlinked. Armies need to be fed and existing systems of provisions are thoroughly interrupted. One just has to think back to the British blockade of the German naval trade during the First World War, which held back import of needed military raw materials but also of food into Germany whilst on the other hand, the USA aided the population of Belgium and occupied France through the Commission of Relief. Both had a profound effect on perception and remembrance of food shortages during these wars and even the idea of war itself. The German word for substitute food, Ersatz, has found its way into other languages such as Dutch, English and Spanish and is still linked to the experience of food shortages by the German home-front population. How did governments try to intervene during times of war?
On a more individual political scale, the relationship between control and food is also incorporated in a framework of culturally defined ideas of resistance, bodily integrity, sacrifice, social dynamics and power. Hunger strikes, refusal or compulsory feeding showcase perceptions of morality, science and existing power relationships, which can be seen in the usage of force-feeding of so called hysterical patients in psychiatric wards or prisoners.
Filip Degreef and Nathali Parys