April 2017


Students will:

  • Learn about two historical famines and the current food crises in Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, and Yemen.
  • Draft working definitions of the word “famine.”
  • Explore the factors that have caused famines throughout history and into the present.
  • Compare and contrast historical and present-day famines to gain a deeper understanding of their complexities.


Famines Throughout History

Famines: Graphic Organizer

Famine Discussion Questions

Starving to Death
An April 2017 article from the Washington Post. (In addition to this article you may also wish to encourage students to read “Why are there still famines?” from the BBC, March 2017.)

Note to teachers: Be sure to preview all materials to make sure that they are appropriate for your classroom. Teaching about famines and food crises may require special sensitivity. The activity might be especially intense for students with a personal connection to these issues. We encourage teachers to help promote careful, respectful consideration of the topic and work to create a classroom environment that is safe for all students.

1. In the Classroom

Begin class by asking students what they have heard about the famine and food shortages that people in four countries are currently facing. Do students know what a famine is? Have students heard which countries are currently affected? Then, ask students if they have heard of any famines that have taken place throughout history. What do they know about these famines?

Tell students that they will be learning about historical as well as current famines and comparing and analyzing the factors that lead to famines.

2. Famines Throughout History

Distribute the reading “Famines Throughout History” and “Famines: Graphic Organizer” to all students. Have students complete the reading, filling in the relevant sections on the graphic organizer as they read.

3. Famines and the Risk of Famine Today

After students have completed the “Famines Throughout History” reading and filled in the related sections on their organizers, ask students to read the Washington Post article “Starving to Death.” You may wish to send students directly to the website, or you may instead choose to print out the article and distribute copies. Ask students to use this article to fill in the rest of their graphic organizer. After completing their organizers, give each student a copy of “Famine Discussion Questions.” Students should use what they gathered from the reading on their organizers to answer the discussion questions. Remind students to be prepared to share their answers to these questions with the class.

4. Class Discussion

Once students have completed their graphic organizers, invite the class to reconvene. Ask students if they were surprised by anything that they read. Had they heard of the two historical famines featured in the text? What about the current famine in South Sudan and the threat of famine in Somalia, Yemen, and Nigeria? Invite students to share the definition of famine that they recorded on their graphic organizer.

Draw students’ attention to the discussion questions. What factors led to famines? Were there similarities between the causes of historical and current famines? Were there any differences? What conclusions can students draw about the causes of famine? How might these conclusions inform how students think people might be able to prevent famines? Was there any other information that students would like to know? Where do students think they might look to uncover this information?

Finally, ask students to reflect on what they knew before beginning the lesson and what they know now. How common do students think knowledge about the current food crises throughout the world are? Do students think that government officials, the media, and other groups are giving adequate attention to these crises? Why or why not?

Extra Challenge

Ask students what they know about efforts taken to prevent famines and respond to them once they are occurring. Have students work together to draft a policy recommendation for how the U.S. government should respond to the crises taking place today.

Additional Resources

Al Jazeera topic page on famine

The Guardian topic page on famine

PBS topic page on famine

USAID’s Famine Early Warning System Network

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