Vienna, February 21 – While few people in Russia are starving, many are not getting the vitamins and minerals they need because, as a result of declining incomes, they are forced to stop purchasing fruits, vegetables, and meat, something officials do not want to discuss but that experts say constitutes “hidden hunger” among many groups in the population.
In an article on the “Krestyanskiye vedomosti” portal, Ilya Dashkovsky says that even those who heatedly deny that there is real hunger in Russia – something many experts say exists as well – “do not deny that Russians are not getting a large amount of necessary vitamins and microelements (www.agronews.ru/newsshow.php?NId=57409).
For example, he points out, medical specialists say that Russians should be consuming on average 22 kilograms of fish every year but that they are in fact eating only 13 kilograms, with many groups, including pensioners, the 24.5 million officially poor, and the residents of hard hit company towns getting far less.
The Food and Agricultural Organization found that five percent of Russians were not getting the right die in 1995-97, but it did not report the problem at all in 2006. And after that year, Dashkovsky notes, “there are not data,” allowing some government experts and officials to deny that the problem exists.
“At the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences,” the agricultural journalist says, the government experts denied there was any “problem” with hunger in Russia. Meanwhile, Dashkovsky says, officials refused to provide any information at all, insisting that their ministries where not responsible but that others might be.
Thus, the press service at the health ministry said that the agricultural ministry was involved with this issue, but spokesmen at the latter “in turn” suggested that the journalist ask the ministry that had sent him to them. But other experts, he said, “have not doubts that many Russians are starving.”
Natalya Tikhonova, a specialist on social policy at the Higher School of Economics says that hunger and bad diet currently are manifest in five to six percent of the population. And she said that most of those affected are members of the working poor, whose low wages and irregular employment mean that they do not eat properly.
Another expert, David Epshtein, a researcher on regional agrarian policy at the North West Scientific Research Institute of the Economy of Agriculture, said that there are no reliable official statistics on this problem but that there is tangential evidence that Russians are not eating properly or enough.
In 1990, Russians on average consumed 75 kilograms of meat a year; now, they eat only 61 kilograms. But in some regions, the latter figure is much lower: In parts of the North Caucasus, it does not exceed 40 kilograms. In Kostroma oblast, it is 41 kilograms, and in Vladimir oblast, it is only 46.
Meat consumption is far from the only indicator, Epshtein insists. In 1990, Russians ate 387 kilograms of milk and milk products a year, but in 2008, the overall figure was only 243 kilograms. And again in some regions, it was much lower. In Tyumen, for example, the 2008 rate was 165 kilograms.
And egg consumption has also fallen dramatically. In 1990, Russians on average ate 297 eggs a year; now, they eat 256. But in Kamchatka, Chukotka, Daghestan, and Tyva, among others, that figure is only 120 to 150, and in Tyva it is 83 – less than one-third the number of only 20 years ago.
Having given up meat, milk and eggs, he notes, Russians have compensated by consuming more bread, potatoes and sugar, a pattern that hides the fact that they are not getting the foods they need and the reality that this shortfall will have serious health consequences for the current generation and future ones.
According to Epshtein, even the average level of consumption of key food groups “cannot be considered sufficient to support the requirements of a healthy individual.” Consequently, “it is clear that in regions with low levels of income, [the situation] is much worse, and that “the poorer part of the population is systematically not eating properly.
Epshtein says that “not less than 15 percent” of the Russian population is not eating enough and that “from 50 to 70 percent of the population is eating at a level below medical norms” when it comes to key vitamins, minerals and other nutrients. Other specialists concur with that assessment.
Dmitry Larionov of the Moscow Council on Land Relations says that pensioners in Russia today can afford to feed themselves “a ration that is comparable with the food provided to German prisoners of war in the USSR in 1945.” And that means that 20 to 25 million Russians face difficulties in providing themselves with food.
In addition to the ways in which Russians like people elsewhere compensate for being unable to buy good food through the consumption of bread, potatoes, and sugar and thus hide their hunger, there is another reason why “hidden hunger” in Russia is something few people in that country focus on.
Social support groups in Moscow and St. Petersburg provide sufficient support that no one, not even the unemployed or elderly, is starving in those cities. “But in the regions the situation is entirely different, even though in this area as in so many others few people talk about that.
Sergey Shugayev, a consultant on inter-budgetary relations for the Accounting Chamber and president of the Organizing Committee of the All-Russian Social Organization “Rural Russia,” says that he is “certain that even working citizens in company towns are not eating enough, especially in Primorsky kray and in the Urals.”
In villages, people still maintain gardens and thus can survive but in these company towns, Shugayev says, people have lost that interest and set of skills. And consequently, they can do little. Indeed, he says, “people [in such places] simply do not know that they are not getting necessary vitamins and minerals.”
But there is one reason why more officials are paying some attention to the problem. An increasing number of draft-age men are so underweight that they either cannot be taken in – some 50,000 were deferred in the latest draft round – or sent to special fattening up units – 20,000 this year – until they weigh enough to perform their duties.
The kind of hunger Russians are experiencing, Dashkovsky says, is “not the hunger which exists in Africa where people are dying from not having enough to eat, but that doesn’t mean that anyone should accept the existing situation as somehow normal.” It is anything but, and more people are going to have to focus on the problem.
Many talk about the impact of alcoholism and poor medical services on the life expectancy, but they ignore the ways in which inadequate diet affects the same measure. Indeed, he says “no one takes into account the influence of hidden hunger in Russia on life expectancy.” Moscow doesn’t see the problems of the regions, and so officials don’t talk about it.