Racheal, a young woman from the Democratic Republic of Congo, is only 24. But she’s wise beyond her years. She hasn’t experienced a famine, but she does know how dangerous a lack of food is.

She says, “Food is the first medicine for human health.”

It’s true. Without good nutrition and enough food, a person’s health will suffer. They’re at a higher risk for illness and malnutrition.

Racheal knows how important food is from firsthand experience. Her 2-year-old foster daughter, Kakuru, almost died from malnutrition. Racheal began caring for Kakuru after Kakuru’s mother died. When violence came to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rachael took Kakuru with her when she decided to leave.

The journey was difficult. Kakuru became malnourished from lack of food. Happily, Racheal brought her to Medical Teams. After treatment for acute malnutrition and follow-up visits from nutritionists, Kakuru is well again.

Rachael says, “I noticed general improvement in the health and nutrition of my family since I’ve been given knowledge of nutrition. There are no more frequent illnesses since I know the right food to give my household.”

Racheal and her family are able to grow their own food now, so they have access to nutritious vegetables. Kakuru’s brush with malnutrition illustrates how scary not having enough food can be. Because Racheal got help, she can dream of Kakuru’s future — she wants to see Kakuru become an educator.

But many people around the world struggle, like Kakuru did, to get adequate nutrition. When enough people in an area can’t get food, a famine is declared.

What is famine?

A nutritionist examines a young boy for malnutrition.
A nutritionist in Uganda examines a young boy for malnutrition.

Put simply, a famine is an extreme lack of food. To be clear, it’s not only the scarcity of certain kinds of food, or that some food is unaffordable. A famine means there isn’t food for most people. In a famine, people die from starvation and acute malnutrition because they can’t get food.

The Famine Early Warning Systems Network has a classification scale from 1-5 that helps governments and humanitarian agencies monitor food insecurity. Phase 1 is minimal food insecurity — people can get the food they need without taking emergency measures. At Phase 5, famine is declared. There are 3 specific conditions that must be met: 20% of the population in an area is experiencing an extreme lack of food, about 1 in 3 children are malnourished, and mortality rates exceed 2 deaths out of every 10,000 people — or 4 deaths out of every 10,000 children — every day.

What creates famines?

Famines have many causes. Usually, it’s not only one or two things that create famines. Multiple factors combine to cause the extreme lack of food in famine. For example, natural disasters — like drought, flooding, or crop diseases — are an emergency. But if a government doesn’t respond to that emergency, it might create a famine.

Alternatively, famine can be caused by the combination of war, a natural disaster, and a government responding with too little, too late. The reality is that it takes a major breakdown in systems to create a famine.

That said, the two biggest causes for famine are climate crisis and conflict.

When our changing climate disrupts regional weather patterns, agriculture suffers. For instance, many regions of current concern are experiencing record levels of drought. No water means no crops. That doesn’t just affect what people can eat. In fact, entire industries are harmed. It means livestock die, farmers can’t make money, and even home gardeners can’t grow their own vegetables. Natural disasters lay the foundation for famine.

Conflict, or war, is another enormous factor in famines. Just like natural disasters disrupt the agriculture industry, wars disrupt every facet of people’s normal lives. Even widespread violence can create the conditions for famine. When infrastructure and supply chains are destroyed, people can’t buy food. Violence also can force people from their homes and seek refuge elsewhere to stay safe. But that also means they might not have access to regular and consistent food.

How does famine affect people?

Medical Teams has seen the effects of famine up close. In 2011, we responded to the East Africa famine. The worst drought in over 60 years impacted nearly 10 million people in the region. We provided emergency nutrition and medical care for families affected by the crisis. In the process, we heard thousands of heart-breaking stories about how famine destroys lives.

Famine steals the future from families. In a famine, children under 5 are especially likely to suffer. They are at a higher risk for acute malnutrition, which makes them much more vulnerable to disease. Without enough nutritious food to eat — or the ability to absorb the right nutrients because of illness — they are at more likely to become malnourished, which can lead to death. Their growing bodies need adequate nutrition to keep developing and stay healthy. Children who survive malnutrition might have stunted growth. They may also have delayed mental and physical development. They often experience health consequences long after the famine is over. In short, the future of a family and their culture is stolen by famine.

Susan survived malnourishment

A woman leans over her sleeping baby.
Gorrety, a mother in Uganda, watches her daughter Susan, who was malnourished, sleep.

Even without an official famine declared, families are still affected by malnutrition. Take the story of Gorrety, a Ugandan woman. Her hope and courage buoyed her through the loss of 3 babies, who died because of malnutrition. When her fourth daughter, Susan, started to get sick, Gorrety was worried for her daughter’s life. Susan’s brothers and sister had already been taken too soon by inadequate nutrition. Gorrety didn’t want to lose her, too.

Gorrety walked over 8 miles with Susan to get help. She made it to a Medical Teams clinic, where Susan was quickly evaluated for malnutrition. They admitted Susan, and Gorrety stayed at the clinic with her for days while she received treatment.

She says, “The treatment and medicine made a big difference. I thank the medical workers and Medical Teams for the help they have given. I am so grateful.”

Today, Susan is a little girl with a future thanks to nutrition. This kind of life-saving medical care stops malnutrition from devastating the lives of families.

Other effects of famine

Starvation and malnutrition aren’t the only ways that famine destroys lives.

Illness spreads more quickly during famine. The conditions that often create a famine are breeding grounds for disease. Without clean water and access to medical care, diseases like diarrhea, cholera and malaria become more prevalent. Immune systems become weak without food and can’t fight off illness. Without adequate nutrition, people are also at a higher risk of organ failure and heart attacks.

Famine tears the fabric of society. Scarce resources often lead to violence as people become increasingly desperate for food. Without enough aid or help from the government, food insecurity can reach the most critical phases such as phase 5 famine Then, the recovery period for societies takes longer.

How can I help in a famine?

Right now, many regions in East Africa are under threat of famine. Drought, violence — including the emergency in Sudan — and other factors are creating a crisis and acute food insecurity.

It’s easy to feel helpless in the face of famine. But you can provide life-saving medical care to people who left home because of food insecurity. You can help feed children like Kakuru and Susan who need emergency nutrition. You can help treat people whose bodies are too weakened by hunger to fight an illness on their own.

Our programs in Uganda, Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Sudan are focused on getting medicine, loving care, and emergency nutrition to people who face barriers to getting regular food.

All of our work focuses on caring compassionately for the whole person.

Learn more about how we heal today.

photo of Lauren Hobson


Lauren Hobson
Copywriter & Editor