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Hunger on the rise in Costa Rica

As the globe celebrates World Food Day today, more Costa Ricans are going hungry than in recent memory. But the problem isn’t a lack of food; it’s people’s ability to afford it.

According to a report from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization released on Oct. 1, 8.2 percent of Costa Ricans are “chronically malnourished,” from 2011 to 2013, up from less than 5 percent before 2010.

FAO defines undernourishment “as a level of food intake insufficient to meet dietary energy requirements.”

The spike in Costa Rica has made it and Guatemala the only two countries in Central America to backslide on their Millennium Development Goal to address hunger this year. Despite the recent uptick, however, Costa Rica’s remains one of the region’s least hungry countries.

The growing number of hungry Ticos could be due to several factors – including a new methodology used this year – but FAO Costa Rica Director José Emilio Suadi told The Tico Times that the number should serve as a “yellow light,” a warning to policy makers about access to food in one of Central America’s most developed countries.

Suadi noted that food security, one of the 2013 report’s main focuses, looks at the availability of food and the public’s access to it. Costa Rica, he said, like most countries, does not have a self-sufficient food supply but is able to import anything it lacks. The problem is that more Costa Ricans are unable to afford that food, regardless of where it originates.

The FAO representative noted that while Costa Rica’s poverty rate has floated around 20 percent in recent years, the actual number of poor continues to rise. With unemployment as high as 18 percent, according to some estimates, falling incomes, and the higher cost of living in Costa Rica conspire to keep food out of the mouths of those who need it most.

Suadi added that the blow dealt by the roya fungus to coffee farmers in Costa Rica would also threaten incomes in rural areas and could contribute to more people going hungry.

But along with the hungry, an over-abundance of food is just as big a public health threat.

According to the 2008-2009 National Nutrition Survey, the most recent carried out by the Public Health Ministry, the number of obese Costa Ricans has risen dramatically over the last 30 years.

Childhood obesity was up for both men and women between 1996 and 2009, when the Public Health Ministry carried out its most recent national nutrition survey. The percentage of children five to 12 years old who were overweight or obese also grew from 14.9 percent in 1996 to 21.4 percent in 2009.

The numbers are even worse for adults age 20 to 44. The number of obese women ballooned 34.6 percent in 1982 to 56.7 percent in 2009. For men ages 20 to 64, the number jumped from 22.1 percent in 1982 to 62.4 percent in 2009.

When people aren’t eating too much food, they’re throwing it away. Suadi added that much of the food people buy ends up in the trash. Globally, nearly 40 percent of the food produced is wasted, the director said.

In light of these challenges, FAO is emphasizing sustainable food chains as this year’s World Food Day theme. The U.N. organization stressed that healthy diets are the key to good nutrition, and demand healthy food systems, supported by education, sanitation and support from governments and other policies.

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