The term famine food commonly refers to a food source that is used mainly when regular staple food crops have failed, such as in times of drought or other types of crop failure, or in war time, when there is a severe risk of starvation and malnutrition. Often, a famine food is a wild food resource, meaning a plant or animal that is hunted or gathered rather than cultivated or farmed. Studies have shown that many famine foods are nutritious, but despite this, they are often regarded as undesirable, probably because of their strong connection to difficult times. Also, some famine foods do not taste very good, and can cause indigestion or illness when eaten in large quantities. Examples of famine food includes bread made with ground bark in Scandinavia in times of scarcity, wild grasses eaten in Russia in war time, and kelp which was eaten in parts of Ireland in times of famine.
A famine food is often a wild plant that is hardy and able to survive poor weather conditions that destroy farmed crops. Knowledge of what wild plants can be used in times of famine is usually passed on orally from generation to generation. This traditional knowledge often remains strong in more traditional communities, especially those in the developing world, where the need for alternative food sources is still great. In more industrialized societies, much of this traditional knowledge has been lost.
In many societies, famine foods are considered a taboo food resource in prosperous times. This social stigma is partly due to famine food being considered poverty food, since it is primarily eaten by poor people or in poor times. However, what is considered a famine or poverty food can change over time. For example, lobster was considered a poverty food in parts of Atlantic Canada and the eastern United States until the late 1800s. After that, it gained in popularity and eventually became a high status food.
In Ethiopia, the local population's use of famine food is used as one indicator of how severe an ongoing famine is. Ethiopian famine food sources include cactus fruits, various wild leafy vegetables, wild fruit trees, and wild shrubs. Some effort has been made to domesticate certain plants used as famine food in Ethiopia, because these native plants are more drought-tolerant and need fewer pesticides than imported crops. However, strong social taboos and the side effects of consuming certain famine foods have hindered these efforts.