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Any effort to improve U.S. policies means dealing with broad, sometimes abstract concepts. Bread for the World Institute’s focus on hunger and strategies to end it means that we frequently find ourselves talking about the entire planet. Besides “global hunger,” our everyday vocabulary includes references such as the international community, global food systems, the global 2030 Agenda, and of course climate change, which affects the entire globe. Worldwide issues, not surprisingly, also involve a lot of large numbers, such as a projected 10 billion people on Earth and, this year, 20 million people confronting famine. No wonder people sometimes seem nonplussed when they hear what Bread’s mission is. Ending hunger. All of it? Everywhere?
On the other hand, hunger and malnutrition are visceral. Hunger is a strong physical sensation, at least in its early stages. Stunting is something that is easy to see. Even micronutrient deficiencies, “hidden hunger,” are hidden only from outside observers. It is clear to those suffering the effects and clear in lab test results. And, of course, each malnourished person is an individual who lives in her own specific social, economic, and cultural contexts. We understand problems in terms of what happens to people with names and to places on a map. If you saw last month’s Institute Insights, for example, you may remember Fatima in Somalia and the two-year-old girl who is her last remaining child.
In this issue, too, we start to unpack the massive generalizations “global hunger” and “hunger in the United States” to see some of the people and communities they are applied to. Maybe smallholder farmers in Malawi whose animals and crops are dying from drought, or formerly middle-class people in Venezuela who must now scramble to put even one daily meal on the table. Or it could be fifth-graders in rural Ohio whose “what I did on my summer vacation” essays would include wondering daily if there will be three meals. Or maybe it’s parents in South Sudan bringing their frail babies, the ones who rarely cry and aren’t learning to walk, to a health clinic.
These are some of today’s hungry people. Sometimes we may temporarily assign them to categories such as “famine victims” or “low-income children” so we can consider which U.S. government policies would help most. But they are also people named Loli or Malik or Katie. Any one-size-fits-most policy solution must be tailored to their contexts, strengths, and hopes for the future.
Asma Lateef is director of Bread for the World Institute.
By Cynthia Woodside
Remember hearing that old song by Nat King Cole about those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer filled with soda and pretzels and beer? In re-reading the lyrics, I also found references to baskets full of sandwiches and weenies, carefree days, and wishes that “summer could always be here.” Many of us have good summertime memories from childhood. I do remember not particularly liking Mondays in summer, though, because that was when the community pool was closed for cleaning.
Unfortunately, and unnecessarily, millions of children in the United States have graver concerns during the summer than pool closings. And unlike the song, one of their concerns is not that summer will end too soon, but that it will last too long. Summer seems exceptionally long when on any given day you don’t know whether you’ll have enough to eat.
Why is summer the time of year when school-age children are most likely to be food insecure? Because when there’s no school, there are no school breakfasts and lunches — and millions of children count on these meals. During the 2015-2016 school year, 22 million children received free or reduced-price (FARMS) school lunches from the National School Lunch Program, but only one out of six of these children received lunches during the summer.
Educators have long been aware of the academic fall-off during summer vacation. The cognitive decline and learning losses during summer are greater among children from low-income families, due in part to lack of access to the range of enrichment activities available to their higher-income peers — and to lack of access to sufficient nutritious food.
Studies show that low-income students return to school each fall an average of two months behind in reading. Re-teaching costs average more than $1,500 per student per year.1 The loss is cumulative, so by the end of fifth grade, low-income children are more than 2.5 years behind their more affluent peers.2
Students who fall behind are more likely to drop out of school. This sabotages their future financial success. On average over the course of a career, a high school graduate earns $500,000 more than a high school dropout, and a college graduate earns approximately $2,000,000 more than a high school dropout.
Not only are children’s economic outcomes jeopardized, but so is their future health.
The 2016 Hunger Report, The Nourishing Effect, describes how food insecurity and lack of sufficient nutrition in childhood can have devastating and lifelong effects. Children in food-insecure families are more likely to be hospitalized, be in poor health, and suffer developmental delays.3 Children who do not have access to regular nutritious meals also are more likely to develop obesity and a host of chronic medical problems that can and often do last a lifetime, such as diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and asthma.
And we all bear the added costs of our failure to ensure that our children have the nourishment needed to live healthy, active lives. Children’s HealthWatch estimates that using conservative figures, direct yearly medical costs resulting from food insecurity — additional, unnecessary healthcare costs caused specifically by food insecurity and hunger — come to $160 billion a year.4
To quote the 2016 Campaign Book of the No Kid Hungry Campaign, “Poverty is a complicated issue; feeding a child is not.” Feeding children during the summer is doable. We just need the political will and public support to make a few key policy changes.
Here are ways Congress could improve the chances of children receiving proper nutrition for academic enrichment and healthy living over the summer. These strategies involve changes in the federal Summer Food Service Program.
Bread for the World Institute supports the Global Agenda for Sustainable Development, including its goal of ending U.S. and global hunger and malnutrition by 2030. This is an achievable goal, and ending summer hunger among children in the United States is a good place to start.
1. Summer Nutrition Program Social Impact Analysis, Deloitte, No Kid Hungry Campaign, Arby’s Foundation.
2. Cooper, Nye, Charlton, Lindsay, and Greathouse. The Effects of Summer Vacation on Achievement Test Scores: A Narrative and Meta-analytic Review, Review of Educational Research, 66: 227-268, 1996
3 Children’s HealthWatch Data, 1998-2005.
4. Cook, John T., and Ana Paula Poblacion, Appendix 2: Estimating the Health-Related Costs of Food Insecurity and Hunger, The Nourishing Effect, Bread for the World Institute, November 2016.
By Jordan Teague
We know that Earth’s climate is changing, and most people who are environmentally aware could tell you that this means changes in weather patterns: heavier rainfall, longer dry periods, more frequent and severe floods, and more frequent and severe droughts.
From here, it’s not much of a leap to see that the people who are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change are those who rely on agriculture for their livelihoods. Most of the world’s poorest and most malnourished communities are almost entirely at the mercy of the weather. Agriculture is not only their main provider of food and nutrition, but also their source of income.
Climate change affects malnutrition in a myriad of ways, both immediate causes and underlying causes. Projections show that climate change will increase stunting by 30 percent to 50 percent by 2050. Stunting, the result of malnutrition in early childhood — before age 2 — causes lifelong, irreversible health problems and developmental delays. It damages the economies of entire countries. Already, one in four children suffer from stunting. The specter of a large increase is another powerful reason to act quickly against climate change.
Climate change reduces agricultural yields and the nutritional value of staple crops, and it increases the prevalence and spread of diseases. These and other effects are closely linked with malnutrition in poor communities.
The severe drought in southern Africa in 2015 and 2016 was the result of a changing climate and the cyclical El Niño event. It is an example of how climate change can threaten the most vulnerable people.
Drought significantly diminishes both access to water and the quality of the water still available. It carries severe consequences for many factors needed for good nutrition — among them, agricultural production, livestock survival, community access to safe drinking water, and the means to cook food, particularly in a hygienic way.
By September 2016, southern African countries had suffered heavy losses of livestock and significant failure of agricultural production, including a deficit of 9 million metric tons of staple crop production. There was also widespread reporting of households using unsafe drinking water, which increased the spread of water-borne diseases.
Farmers in Madagascar lost up to 80 percent of crops in 2016 and nearly 50,000 children needed immediate nutrition assistance. Zimbabwe estimated that the drought would put 4.1 million people in need of health and nutrition assistance. Mozambique reported in November 2016 that 1.4 million people were food insecure and that by May 2017, 243,000 children may be acutely malnourished.
Drought is just one of the effects of climate change that damage the lives and livelihoods of the most vulnerable people, particularly pregnant women and children under 2. Nourishing mothers and children depends on many factors now being altered by a changing climate — including agriculture, food systems, safe water, and sanitation services.
Jordan Teague is international policy analyst at Bread for the World Institute.
Photo: Caritas Internationalis Venezuela reports that 11.4 percent of children it surveyed are suffering from moderate or severe malnutrition.
By Derek Schwabe
In a time when government failures are coming to a head in several fragile states, resulting in unprecedented famine and the largest refugee crises since World War II, global leaders and humanitarian actors have had little bandwidth for any hunger situation except famine and near-famine. But they are starting to pay attention to Venezuela, which overnight has escalated to disaster-level. While not a full-scale famine, the Venezuela crisis shares the same fundamental cause: bad governance.
Venezuela’s chaotic descent—from South America’s wealthiest country to its poorest and hungriest — happened so swiftly and dramatically that it has caught the global community off guard. You’ll find very little about it on the websites of leading humanitarian agencies such as the World Food Program. Even a year ago, these groups considered Venezuela too wealthy to need help. But mounting reports of severe acute malnutrition — which kills up to half of the children suffering from it — and spiking maternal and infant mortality rates (they have increased 65 percent and 30 percent, respectively) point to an economic meltdown that is pushing the country to the brink of collapse.
The IMF reports that Venezuela’s inflation rate has soared to 720 percent, the highest level in the world, and projects that it will reach 1,600 percent by the end of this year. Skyrocketing inflation has rendered the country’s currency, the bolivar, functionally useless for purchasing food or anything else. Observers on the ground estimate the current exchange rate to be 4,000 bolivars to the dollar — 400 times the official rate as reported last month. Poverty is the new national norm, affecting 80 percent of the population.
The hunger impact is staggering. While the world is still coming to terms with the severity of the situation, local organizations are sounding the alarm. Caritas Internationalis, which tracks child malnutrition in four Venezuelan states, estimates that 11.4 percent of children under 5 are suffering from either moderate or severe acute malnutrition — well above the World Health Organization’s crisis threshold of 10 percent.
Recent polls show that Venezuelans have lost an average of 19 lbs. this year. Infants are dying in hospitals that can no longer access or afford basic supplies such as insulin, antibiotics, and of course, food. Parents and older siblings hold off on eating for days to shield younger children from malnutrition. Raids on grocery stores are frequent. Padlocking the family refrigerator is commonplace.
While Venezuela’s hunger emergency arose suddenly, its leading root cause has been evident for years. Hunger this severe cannot appear out of nowhere. That it seems to have struck out of the blue signals that government policy decisions and their impact have not been transparent. And, in fact, the country has consistently ranked near the bottom of the Corruption Perceptions Index every year since the index began in 1995. It ranks alongside countries such as Yemen, which is now experiencing famine. For decades, leaders compensated for rampant corruption with the wealth generated by the country’s massive oil reserves. But when oil prices dropped at the end of 2014, this was no longer an option, and the mismanagement was laid bare.
Venezuela has experienced the gradual consolidation of power, the dissolution of democratic institutions, and the detachment of elected officials from the needs and problems of the people they are supposed to serve. The government denies that the current situation is a crisis, and refuses to accept outside humanitarian assistance.
Populist leaders, once trusted by a majority of Venezuelans to restore the shared prosperity that people craved, have led Venezuela into desperate circumstances. This serves as a reminder to the world that a departure from democratic norms and transparency can happen in relatively wealthy countries as well as in poor ones, and it can be treacherous for the health and well-being of groups with less power.
Read more about how poor governance undermines the goals to end hunger and poverty in the 2017 Hunger Report: Fragile Environments, Resilient Communities.
Derek Schwabe is a research associate in Bread for the World Institute.
Editor’s note: Please watch the first video in our new series, Hunger Reports, on the links between climate change and hunger.
By Michele Learner
Famine is about much more than food insecurity. It is about compounding vulnerabilities that leave millions of people without basic human dignity, without hope for the future. — Reena Ghelani, Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)
In some good news for the record numbers of people currently living in famine or near-famine conditions, Congress approved a fiscal 2017 supplemental budget that includes about $1 billion in additional funding for famine relief. Bread for the World advocated persistently for these extra resources. The money will go to help people in South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, and Nigeria. It will save many lives, particularly those of young children. Children under 5 are far more likely to die from malnutrition than older children and adults, which explains why, of the estimated 260,000 people who died during Somalia’s 2011 famine, more than 150,000 were young children.
Before the U.S. announcement of additional funding, the global community’s response to the 2017 appeal for famine relief funds had been very weak. Less than 25 percent of the needed emergency resources had been pledged. Money continued to arrive very slowly even after parts of South Sudan had met the official definition of famine, which includes grim criteria such as a child acute malnutrition rate of 30 percent or more. The new U.S. contribution, while far from enough to meet all the needs, will help significantly — both in itself, and in its influence motivating other donors to increase their own contributions.
Another encouraging sign is that we know more now about which actions are most effective and should be top priorities in near-famine situations. The familiar news footage of mass distribution of sacks of grain is a less common strategy. This is both because of the high potential for violence as desperate people gather in large crowds, and because it is very difficult in such situations to ensure that the food reaches those most in need. Instead, in the frequent cases where food is available locally but people are dangerously malnourished because they don’t have money to buy it, families are given vouchers to buy food at the market. Children with acute malnutrition, particularly if it is already severe, are treated in therapeutic feeding centers. As possible when children start to recover, parents are given a supply of ready-to-use therapeutic foods (RUTFs) and taught how to use them.
Writing in 2012, in the aftermath of the 2011 famine in Somalia, Dina Esposito, then director of the U.S. Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, recalled working as part of a disaster response team during Somalia’s 1991 famine. “We learned a lot from that famine response … and looking back I can say that we played it smarter this time around [in 2011],” she wrote. The increasing recognition that people weakened by malnutrition are more vulnerable to preventable diseases meant that more resources were allocated to health and hygiene programs, such as vaccination, clean water, and essential supplies (for example, soap).
“Much improved early warning systems [received from the experts at Famine Early Warning System (FEWS) and Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit] gave us a clear picture of both nutritional needs and market prices,” Esposito continued. Food stockpiles, including RUTFs, were pre-positioned near areas expected to have the greatest needs.
Of course, by far the best solution to famine and other hunger crises is to prevent them in the first place. The famine in South Sudan and the threatened famines in Somalia, Yemen, and Nigeria are primarily the result of conflict. According to military analysts, these conflicts have no military solutions. They drag on and on, awaiting mediation and political solutions. Conditions have also been worsened by climate change, as people fight over both shrinking supplies of water, and access to land suitable for growing food or grazing animals. The Institute’s 2017 Hunger Report, Fragile Environments, Resilient Communities, looks more closely at conflict, climate change, and other factors that make people vulnerable to hunger, and at how these types of fragility can be addressed.
Prevention also means investing in nutrition so that people are healthier and better able to withstand and recover from crises such as prolonged drought. As explained in our earlier article, “Skinny Budgets Versus Hungry Babies," U.S. assistance for global maternal and child nutrition helps treat children with acute malnutrition, supports efforts to prevent anemia and stunting, promotes lifesaving breastfeeding practices, and meets other urgent health and nutrition needs. Yet for fiscal year 2017, the administration budgeted approximately $256 million for maternal and child nutrition. That amount — the total for all regions of the world — is less than 1 cent for every $100 in the federal budget. Strengthening this prevention and early treatment budget would prevent deaths and suffering and, incidentally, reduce the need for emergency food aid.
The need to do more is obvious. Between the 1991 and the 2011 famines in Somalia, the humanitarian relief sector made valuable progress on effective response. And yet, as Esposito recalled, “In July 2011, I remember calling [a colleague] to let her know that famine had been officially declared in Somalia. It was with an air of both sadness and disbelief that I myself absorbed the news that we had actually reached this point.”
The situation in 2017 perhaps warrants even greater sadness and disbelief, because although the countries facing famine have very different contexts and needs, the fact is that we know how to prevent and respond to such crises. The global community has not yet chosen to make available all the resources needed to avert famine, though the sums are modest in the context of donor countries’ budgets. The countries of the world have, however, committed to tackling climate change with the needed urgency; to making determined efforts to end conflicts — efforts that don’t stop until the wars do; and to taking the other actions needed to achieve the 2030 Agenda for Action. Now is the time.
Michele Learner is associate editor at Bread for the World Institute.
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