Bright Spots during the COVID-19 Food Crisis

Julie Ramos
30 October 2020, Food Security and Clean Water Program Manager, Latter-day Saint Charities

“Let’s play a game—everyone up on your feet!” I watched as the agricultural trainer explained the rules. All in the room were to hold their breath as long as they could, and as soon as they took a breath, they were to sit down. As you can imagine, the game did not last long, but it was a nice break in the two-hour training that the Malagasy farmers were receiving about post-harvest management. The men and women laughed and cheered as the last person standing, a 20-year-old man, beamed as he sat down.

The trainer then went on to explain that all living things need air to breathe. You could see the nods of understanding as the analogy was explained. The farmers were learning how to properly store their crops—mostly maize and sorghum. After a crop is dry, if farmers store it in a container that lets air in, microorganisms can live and breathe in the crop, leading to mold or other spoilage.

During the last six months, I have thought about this analogy often. As the COVID-19 health crisis has turned into a growing hunger pandemic, I sometimes feel that I am just holding my breath.

According to the United Nations World Food Programme, the population facing life-threatening levels of food insecurity is expected to reach 265 million people by the end of 2020.1 Also by the end of the year, the pandemic will likely result in an additional 6.7 million children who are extremely malnourished and are considered wasting, according to a recent article in the medical journal The Lancet.2

Behind these numbers are compounding factors, including disruptions in the agricultural supply chain, limited imports, lockdowns, and unemployment. Moreover, many populations were already facing such problems as drought, erratic weather patterns, and locust infestations.

The numbers are alarming and daunting. And the reality is that we have yet to even see the long-term impacts of COVID-19 on hunger around the world. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has stated that we must act, immediately and at scale, to ensure that the COVID-19 pandemic does not leave as its legacy “a generation of children who have lost their potential or lives to malnutrition.”3

Over the last six months, Latter-day Saint Charities has sought to better understand how to mitigate the hunger crisis. We have talked to families around the world as well as key partners that address food security. Throughout this discovery process, I have reminded myself to take a deep breath and look for bright spots. Here are a few I’d like to share:

  • With lockdowns and social-distancing measures in place, organizations around the world that work with smallholder farmers have had to rapidly digitize their services. Latter-day Saint Charities’ partner One Acre Fund has demonstrated this incredibly well. They previously relied on in-person trainings, but COVID-19 has created the unique opportunity to provide remote farm trainings via video or SMS texting. Not only does this cut down on travel time, but it also creates potential for more on-demand training for farmers. By digitizing training activities and business functions, One Acre Fund is better supporting farmers and increasing food production.
  • Diarrheal diseases caused by poor water and sanitation services are a leading cause of malnutrition in children under five. COVID-19, however, has created a moment of unprecedented awareness of hygiene and sanitation. Broad government messaging around improved hygiene practices such as handwashing is building a foundation for permanent behavior change. This will have a profound impact on child malnutrition. Our partner Helen Keller International is working to ensure that hygiene is taught not just through one-way messaging but through two-way communication that helps bring about appropriate actions in local contexts.
  • Because of the disruptions in food distribution, COVID-19 has made it significantly more critical to understand value chains. Latter-day Saint Charities partner International Development Enterprises (iDE) has worked relentlessly to assess where supply chains are breaking down. In many instances, iDE has effectively advocated with policy makers to address gaps in the value chain. A great example of this was iDE’s work in Bangladesh, Cambodia, and Nepal. In the early days of COVID-19, they effectively advocated with government leaders to declare farming an essential job so that farmers could get out to their fields even during lockdowns.

So what can we as individuals do about the hunger crisis? How can we find and create more bright spots? The following principles come to mind: serve locally, give globally, and become an advocate.

  • Serve locally: Wherever you are in the world, there are people around you who are experiencing hunger. Seek to understand the needs in your area. Find out what organizations are addressing food insecurity, and volunteer your time and expertise.
  • Give globally: Donate to organizations that have a local footprint and are addressing hunger in innovative and sustainable ways (beyond temporary solutions like distributing food). You may want to start by exploring the key partners listed on the Latter-day Saint Charities website.
  • Become an advocate: This is one of the best ways to get involved. Do your homework to really understand and stay informed on the issues that are influencing the global hunger crisis. Reach out to like-minded individuals and organizations. Gain knowledge through volunteering, courses, and so on. Use your voice to spread awareness.

I smile as I think of the farmers I met in Madagascar. But I wonder how they, their farms, and their families have been impacted by COVID-19. As I think about the valuable lesson that all living things need air to breathe, it is my hope that even despite these challenging times, we may all take a collective breath—and then get to work.