But the COVID-19 pandemic has caused governments to shut down schools, inadvertently disrupting school feeding programs. United Nations agencies recently reported that 39 billion school meals have been missed as a result, each meal representing a child who wasn’t able to get critical nutrients for that day. Of the 1.3 billion children displaced from the classroom, roughly 370 million had relied on school meals.
“Missing out on nutritious school meals is jeopardizing the futures of millions of the world’s poorest children — we risk losing a whole generation,” David Beasley, the World Food Programme’s executive director, said in a statement. “For many, the nutritious meal they get in school is the only food they will receive all day.”
Disruptions to school meal programs, even for a week, have profound consequences for children who need nutritious, balanced diets to grow and reach their potential. Without urgent intervention, children face serious health risks. And they’re not alone. School closures are just one of the ways in which the pandemic has worsened the global food crisis.
How Are We Going to End the World Hunger Crisis?
Countries have to focus on producing more food on less land to both feed a growing population and adapt to climate change, while also helping people access nutritious diets to overcome the crisis of malnutrition.
This can be done by investing in smallholder farmers, regenerating soil worldwide, building climate resilience in agricultural systems, promoting and subsidizing crops that are more nutritious, and providing stronger financial support to those living in poverty.
3 Things You Should Know About Global Hunger
- The World Food Programme estimates that the number of people in urgent need of food aid has doubled since the start of the pandemic to 270 million. Throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, the number of people needing food assistance has quadrupled. Roughly 55 million people in seven of the most affected countries now face famine-like conditions, according to Oxfam.
- “Even short-term famine can have a devastating long-term impact on a country and inhibit its economic progress for generations,” Oxfam reports. “People affected by chronic hunger and malnutrition face lifelong consequences starting in childhood, such as more frequent illness, poor school performance, having to repeat classes or dropping out altogether, having low productivity at work, and lower lifetime earnings. They are statistically more likely to live in lifetime poverty.”
- More broadly, 3 billion people globally do not have access to a healthy diet, including more than half the population in areas like sub-Saharan Africa. Nearly 2 billion people in Asia and the Pacific alone are unable to afford a healthy diet because it's too expensive at roughly $4.15 USD per day.
How Global Hunger Affects People Worldwide
For years leading up to the pandemic, the global hunger crisis had been steadily growing because of ongoing conflicts, the escalating impacts of climate change, dysfunctional food systems, threadbare welfare programs, and a ruthless global economy that displaces people from their lands, deprives them of traditional forms of subsistence farming, and drives up the overall cost of food.
The COVID-19 pandemic intensified these trends. When governments began to enact shutdowns to curb the spread of the virus, the ripple effects were immediate.
Food systems began to falter in many low-income countries as laborers could no longer work on farms and farmers could no longer sell their crops at markets because of physical distancing mandates. The overnight elimination of entire sectors of the economy meant that unemployment surged worldwide, causing income levels to drop and remittances to peter out. This loss in income then meant people could no longer afford food.
In countries without adequate government aid, there was little safety net to catch people who fell. In Yemen, a survey at the start of the pandemic found that 62% of respondents couldn’t afford food and water. In the US, people waited in miles-long lines for food banks. In Brazil’s favelas, many people have yet to receive emergency government stipends.
Malnutrition and undernutrition undermine a person’s health whenever they strike. But in the context of COVID-19, these conditions become even more hazardous. People with chronic nutrient deficiencies have weakened immune systems that expose them to more severe and debilitating infections.
As vaccines are deployed against COVID-19, countries risk returning to a flawed status quo if they fail to craft recovery packages that address multiple crises at once. Without urgent interventions, the global food crisis will worsen in the months and years ahead, threatening the lives of hundreds of millions of people.
That’s why Global Citizen is calling on world leaders to invest in domestic and international food systems to ensure global hunger can be eradicated alongside the COVID-19 virus. In the immediate future, donor governments and developing countries must invest $10 billion in social protection programs, agriculture, rural development, and food systems.
How We Can End World Hunger
Take-home ration distribution at Kakamar Primary School, July 2020. The Government of Uganda and the WFP are distributing food rations to children in the Karamoja region in Uganda to support home-learning while schools remain closed due to the COVID-19.
That’s all to say that the global hunger crisis comes down to political decisions, namely the decision to allocate resources and income in extremely unequal ways. The COVID-19 pandemic has starkly illustrated these inequalities — whether it’s the extreme wealth accumulation of billionaires over the past year or how the poorest countries have been systematically barred from vaccine access.
By revealing these injustices, the pandemic also shows how they can be addressed and overcome. In the months ahead, countries have the opportunity to break with the old status quo to transform the global food system and economy to end hunger once and for all.
Most immediately, food and cash have to be distributed to the most vulnerable communities worldwide to ensure they can get enough to eat during the pandemic. Through the Recovery Plan for the World, Global Citizen is calling on governments to support the World Food Programme’s work in providing school meals to students and directly providing cash transfers.
These welfare schemes have to be folded into permanent programs so that people everywhere are always able to access and afford nutritious food.
Countries with large rural populations also have to ensure that smallholder farmers can productively engage in agriculture. Too many farmers worldwide struggle to realize the full potential of their land and earn fair wages for their work. That’s why Global Citizen is urging world leaders to contribute to the International Fund for Agricultural Development’s (IFAD) replenishment so that it can help farmers overcome climate impacts, earn more income, and expand their enterprises.
This leads to the broader issue of food supply chains and systems overall. Current market incentives have distorted food production in ways that both exacerbate climate change and leave communities with few nutritious food options.
In the years ahead, agriculture has to shift away from its reliance on livestock and cash crops that cause widespread deforestation, water depletion, and soil degradation and instead embrace more sustainable forms of agriculture that maximize the amount of calories produced per acre, while also allowing the global environment to regenerate.
By 2050, the global population is expected to rise to 10 billion people, all of whom will need adequate and nutritious food. The planet will not be able to sustain an expansion of the current food system to support this surge. As a result, countries have to get serious now about limiting greenhouse gas emissions and land use from the agricultural sector. Otherwise the climate crisis will worsen, making it even harder to grow food.
There are clear solutions that can be implemented, including eliminating food waste, promoting plant-based diets, phasing out the use of bioenergy, and improving crop yields. These efforts have to be situated within larger frameworks of justice and international solidarity, otherwise resource competition will lead to dwindling resources for all.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown the intertwined nature of the world — a virus that emerged in one part of the world swiftly overwhelmed countries thousands of miles away. What’s often overlooked is that the COVID-19 pandemic likely emerged because of the dysfunctional nature of the global food system. Without rampant deforestation, habitat loss, and animal poaching, the pathogen may never have jumped species.
The old food system has failed us in many ways. Now it’s time to forge a new model, one that maintains the health of the planet and allows everyone to eat nourishing food.
You can join us by taking action here right now to support the Recovery Plan for the World, to end COVID-19 and kickstart a global recovery.