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Lose weight, fight hunger on the 850-calorie African refugee diet

Muslim refugees rest inside the Catholic Church in Carnot, Central African Republic. (Credit: AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

It’s an outrage that anyone today should ever go hungry, but the outrage persists.

That’s why I have chosen, along with my better half, to join the 850 Calories campaign and eat less than half of what the human body needs per day for five days. I’m sometimes a skeptic of the value of ‘awareness raising’ projects, but something about this one seems to work for me.

You may have noted recent news reports that thousands of refugees in Africa have already seen their rations cut in half to a mere 850 calories a day.

People who have already experienced hardship because of the very fact that they had to flee their homes now must find a way to get by on less than half of the amount of calories recommended for the average person. To put that into perspective, that is about as many calories as a chicken burrito with rice and beans from Chipotle (815 calories).

A $186 million shortfall in funding led the UN’s World Food Programme to announce cuts in food rations for 800,000 refugees in Africa. Media reports, including one I wrote, shared the announcement and then moved on. More than three weeks have passed since the announcement as hundreds of thousands of people struggle to get enough food to eat each day.

The lack of attention on the issue has given rise to a new campaign, 850 Calories. It is pretty straight forward. The world should not stand by while refugees are reduced to eating less than what they need to get by.

“The UN can announce that hundreds of thousands of them will go hungry within their own camps, and it barely makes the news. It’s as though we’ve lost any capacity for empathy with Africa’s refugees,” say organizers of the campaign.

This is what the 850 calories refugees can eat looks like: 120 grams of rice, 120 grams of lentils, and 2 grams of salt.
This is what the 850 calories refugees can eat looks like: 120 grams of rice, 120 grams of lentils, and 2 grams of salt.
850 Calories

Such an issue warrants more attention. Just $186 million is needed to ensure that refugees are meeting their most basic needs to survive. This is even before we can talk about important issues such as housing, education, health and eventually returning home.

That is why I am joining the call and encouraging others to join. Starting Monday, my fiancee and I will limit ourselves to 850 calories for five days. It is an act of solidarity and an effort to raise awareness. I remain skeptical of awareness raising campaigns, especially ones linked to personal actions. It is not fair to start to equate five days of 850 calories to the struggles experienced by refugees. Not only will we have better food choice, we will have other comforts like a bathroom, television, a safe home and more. Above all else, this will be a choice where we designate the start and the end.

The dichotomy between US’s poor eating habits and the cuts faced by the refugees says as much about our eating habits as it does about the magnitude of this problem. This is a hunger crisis in the making. And it is entirely avoidable.

For more than a decade, I allowed my personal health to remain a non-issue. While I read, research and write about issues of health, I have neglected my own. I’ve known intellectually that change was needed. I am even aware of the obstacles to behavior change and some of the ways to trick oneself into better choices. Recently, I have been taking steps to make such an intentional change a reality.

One of which is to kick-start via the fasting or 5-2 diet. After looking at the data and research, I decided to use a diet that was simple to follow and had impact. Two days a week, I am restricted to 600 calories. The rest of the week I can have whatever I want. The days of fasting help weight loss, but also force me to be more conscious about the things that I put into my body. I also have to be creative with vegetables to create filling low-calorie meals. So far, it has worked in regards to losing weight and forcing me to reconsider eating choices I used to make.

Americans, including myself, manage to eat as many calories in one sitting, if not more, as an African refugee gets for the whole day.

The least I can do is use what voice I do have to call attention to this issue. It is something I have never done before, so it is an experiment of sorts. I have reached out to some connections to try and get them on board. I will do my best to offer some reflections on how such a choice affects me personally and share the process using social media.

“People are starving because the food rations were cut. Because they are weak already, they are prone to all kinds of diseases. There is a shortage of clean drinking water, health services are lacking, and the overall insecurity in the locality worsens the situation,” said Saleh Eisa, the Secretary-General of Kalma camp, to Radio Dabanga in mid-July.

The delivery of food aid is fraught with complications. Donated food can undercut local markets and help to prolong civil conflicts. Those issues appear to have more to do with the actually way that food aid is given to people. What is without question is the impact that food has on the lives of people in dire straits. At a time when there are few easy wins in humanitarian action, pulling together $186 million can have a significant positive impact on 800,000 people.

What struck me about the problem facing the refugees is that I am essentially choosing to live on as much as they are allowed every day, for two days each week. The neglect for both myself and these refugees could not be more clear. My personal neglect has forced me to restrict how much I eat. The collective neglect of the intentional community, including myself for not pressing on this issue, is leaving thousands of people with not enough to eat.

The consequences of limited food has significant negative effects. For children, not enough food and nutrients can lead to stunted growth. Not only are they physically shorter than they should be, but their brains are at risk as well. The World Health Organization warns that stunting can slow down brain development, thus making education even harder for the children.

Hunger itself affects students as well. Students struggle to concentrate due to the lack of nourishment. Such challenges extend to adults who also are sapped when not meeting their caloric needs on a daily basis. It makes them less productive when working, therefore making it harder for them to climb out of the cycle of poverty.

That is all in addition to the mental toll that poverty takes on a person. Numerous studies have shown that scarcity can lead to lower concentration and IQ performance. Eldar Shafir from Princeton University carried out a study on sugarcane farmers in southern India. These families see a lot of money come in at one time and then experience hardship when the money runs out prior to the next harvest. IQ fell by roughly 13 points during the time of the year when life was more difficult and money was tight, found the researchers.

Preventing these problems starts with $186 million. That is less that what it cost to make a Transformers movie. I hope some of you will join me next week, even if it is for a day.

Note: The title is meant to be tongue-in-cheek and not suggest that participating in the 850 calorie challenge is a way to lose weight. I do not recommend it to do so, nor am I the least bit qualified. The title hopefully provokes and points out just how absurd it is that people just survive on so little.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]