Drone photographs of a parking lot outside a San Antonio food bank last week showed a staggering 10,000 cars awaiting delivery of food aid packages. Though media coverage is awash with statistics on unemployment rates and job losses caused by the pandemic, nothing captured the desperation of millions of Americans unable to put food on the table, like the image of the parking lot packed with cars of people in need of food.
“”I panicked. I’ve never seen a line that long,” food bank CEO Eric Cooper told NPR, as more than 4000 families, in addition to the 6000 who had registered, showed up tor free food.
Hunger and food insecurity is surging in the US as poor and unemployed households in a crippled economy struggle to make choices between rent, food or transportation.
Thousands of children who rely on low cost or free lunches provided by the National School Lunch Program are severely impacted by the food crisis. The program feeds almost 30 million school children every day. But as school closures forced by COVID-19 shutdowns disrupt access to nutritious meals, officials across the country are scrambling to find ways to make sure vulnerable children don’t go hungry.
And, while countries like the US try to avert coronavirus-related food crises for their people, COVID-19 is on the verge of creating a devastating hunger pandemic in the developing world.
“Even before COVID-19 hit, 135 million people on the planet were already struggling with acute food insecurity due to pre-existing shocks or crises,” explained FAO Director Dominique Burgeon in an interview.
“This means they were already on the extreme end of the hunger spectrum-weak, and less well-equipped to fend off the virus. A crisis within a crisis could emerge.”
COVID-19 could have catastrophic consequences in countries where vulnerable populations are already besieged by malnutrition, food scarcity, inadequate healthcare systems and lost livelihoods. David M. Beasley executive director of the U.N. World Food Program warns that the pandemic has the potential to push millions “to the brink of starvation” and detonate a hunger pandemic that may “sow the seeds of famine in its wake.”
This view was shared by several experts at a telebriefing organized by Ethnic Media Services (May 8), to understand the mounting health and hunger challenges that COVID-19 is imposing on the developing world.
Dulce Gamboa, a senior associate at Bread for the World, shared evidence from the World Food Program that the number of people facing food crises would soar to 265 million by the end of the year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The world has never seen an ‘unprecedented’ hunger emergency like this,” she said, where millions of people facing a hunger crisis around the world don’t even know where their next meal is coming from.
People living in poverty and poorer economic nations face the prospect of starvation because lockdowns and social distancing measures during the pandemic undermine their ability to work and earn an income, while disrupting agricultural production and supply routes.
Almost 94 million people from sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, Central America and the Middle East will require humanitarian food assistance, stated Gamboa. A USAID Famine Early Warning System reported that the macroeconomic devastation, driven by a multitude of factors – protracted conflict, droughts, displacement and sudden loss of income and livelihood – was compounded by the hunger pandemic.
Though there are no changes in food prices, said Gamboa, “the food security situation for people living in poverty is likely to deteriorate significantly worldwide,” especially in countries like Sudan that were struggling even before the outbreak. The hunger crisis is also being monitored in Zimbabwe, Southern Africa, DRC and the Horn of Africa.
Poorer households in the informal economies of Latin American countries like Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, have been impacted by declining remittances from the US, while in Venezuela, where nearly nine million were already suffering from malnutrition, people are under siege both from a collapsed economy and the fallout from the pandemic.
In Latin America, where an estimated 130 million live in low income barrios and villages, people are worried about being able to feed their families. They fear that hunger will kill them before the coronavirus does, said Gamboa.
How will poorer nations fight the virus “as the economic and health crisis becomes a global hunger crisis?
“A rise in malnutrition is inevitable,” said Gamboa, as COVID-19 exacerbates conditions for vulnerable populations at risk of poor nutrition. Reduced dietary quality will impact immune systems, increase underlying health conditions, and threaten the healthcare of mothers and children. Newborns have a 100 day window to establish a strong immune system, says Gamboa. “A young, malnourished child will be stunted for life”
As COVID-19 churns through communities, upending the course of daily life as it chokes off access to food, healthcare and money, the FAO has launched a $110 million appeal for humanitarian aid to protect the food security of vulnerable populations.
Gamboa is urging the US to lead a strong global response to protect the food security of and ensure $12 billion in funding for global food, health and humanitarian assistance.
“There are red flags,” said Gamboa, which indicate that famine could be likely in the absence of humanitarian aid.
Meera Kymal is a contributing editor at India Currents.