Hunger: A Modern History

British Food Journal

ISSN: 0007-070X

Article publication date: 27 September 2011




Lhuissier, A. (2011), "Hunger: A Modern History", British Food Journal, Vol. 113 No. 10, pp. 1318-1319.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Hunger: A Modern History deals with the transformations that occurred in the modern understanding of hunger. James Vernon, historian and Professor at Berkeley University underlies in an opening chapter the topicality of the issue of hunger. But he rapidly switches to the history of this topic focusing on the way hunger has been understood and what kind of changes happened over the two past centuries. More precisely, Vernon claims to be engaged in a form of “cultural history, concerned with elaborating not the material causes or consequences of hunger, but its changing and historically specific meanings” (p. 8). Thus, he emphasizes hunger as a social problem, i.e. the way many people, such as politicians, philanthropists, doctors and so on, faced this issue. Following a chronological order he highlights two primary shifts from 1850 to 1950: from hunger to malnutrition then from minimal to optimum nutritional standards.

Chapters 2 and 3 deal with the changes that occurred at the turn of the nineteenth century in the debate related to hunger. In the early nineteenth century hunger was synonymous with moral failure, following Malthusian model of causation: those who died of starvation tended to be considered as lazy and morally inadequate human beings. Vernon stresses that from the 1840s these views were challenged by a “new crusading generation of journalists” who considered themselves as ethnographic eyewitnesses and used new techniques for making and reporting the news. For those journalists, hunger no longer required a major calamity to make it visible and they presented it as a human tragedy that needed immediate action and redress. This view that the hungry lacked food not moral character was reinforced at the end of the century by Irish and Indian Nationalists who established that hunger was a product of a failing political economy.

This first steps towards the politization of hunger and the clash between those who could find no excuse for the hungry and those who could find no excuse for hunger, had for consequence the necessity of the development of scientific techniques for its definition and measurement. Thus started a long series of scientific debate opened by Chadwick and presented in chapters 4 and 5. The Edwardian years marked the arrival of the social and nutritional sciences as essential to all future discussions about the measurement of hunger and its social consequences. From 1890, nutritionists developed a range of techniques that appeared to allow objective, standardized, and universal ways of defining and measuring hunger. But on the eve of the Great War, their thermodynamic model was slowly challenged by a new biochemical emphasis on the quality, as opposed to the quantity of food. The discovery of vitamins and the gradual triumph of the biochemical view of nutrition allowed hunger, and eventually poverty, to be fundamentally redefined in terms of the quality of diet and health, and by reference to what became known as malnutrition, rather than simply the quantitative lack of food – that is undernutrition.

From the 1930s with a new and radically expanded definition of hunger as malnutrition, social nutritionists delineated the costs of hunger and asserted that it was preventable with a little nutritional planning. The most forceful advocates of the new definitions and standards were social nutritionists, who set out to transform political, social and economic life. Their discovery of malnutrition transformed the social problem of the hungry into a much larger nutritional problem for society: that is to say, hunger was no longer seen as the particular preserve of the poor, for all of society now shared the problem of maintaining and improving nutritional health. With the chapters 6 and 7 respectively based on collective feeding and domestic science, the book turns to nutritional health. Implementations of collective feeding experiments and endeavors towards the improvement of domestic economy through the diffusion of nutritional knowledge led scientists to the last shift from malnutrition to optimal standards. At last, the book ends with a discussion about British social democracy and welfare state, in which Vernon states that “hunger led not to the collapse of liberalism but to a reconfiguration in which liberal and social democratic forms of governing hunger coalesced” (p. 277).

The reader will enjoy this book for its overview of social concerns about food over a period of a hundred years in Great Britain. It gives not only a large and detailed account of the history of hunger and nutrition (though these subjects are well documented, see for example (Ó Gráda, 2009; Smith, 1997), but it also stresses various questions such as colonial famines, hunger strikes and hunger marches, accounts of childhood hunger or the development of domestic economy and the implementation of healthy food campaigns. This diversity of topics originates with the multiplicity of the sources the author has mined: archival materials, canonical texts, political tracts, social surveys, nutritional treatises, administrative manuals, architectural designs, films, radio broadcast, autobiographical testimony, songs and cartoons. At the same time, one could say that in this overview may lie the weakness of the book. Focusing on several debates following a chronological order, it sometimes gives the reader the feeling of a linear account. Moreover, this account is a history from the top, from the point of view of the institutions (their archives and official reports, their main public personages). And we can regret that sources are barely compared, the multiple memberships of the main actors of this history are hardly examined (are the members of the food commission philanthropists, members of a club, do they meet in private places?) while it should have enriched other adduced evidence. But despite these slight reserves, Hunger offers useful clues to understand the political, social and scientific heritage of this very current issue of healthy eating and will interest many scientists, as well as social workers or any people involved in food issues.


Gráda, Ó. (2009), Famine: A Short History, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.

Smith, D. (Ed.) (1997), Nutrition in Britain: Science, Scientists, and Politics in the Twentieth Century, Routledge, London/New York, NY.

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