Institute Insights: September 2019


Joseph Molieri / Bread for the World

From the Director

For many people in the United States, September is back-to-school month. Anti-hunger advocates, along with millions of children and parents in food-insecure families, are relieved that students can once again count on meals at school to help provide nutritious food. 

Each September, the Institute also anticipates the federal government’s data on U.S. hunger for the previous year. In order to end hunger, it is extremely important to have accurate data on who is affected and how that may be changing. The data for 2018 has just been released, showing that food insecurity has finally returned to pre-Great Recession levels, but millions of people continue to struggle. The next issue of Institute Insights will include an analysis of this data, but in this issue, we express deep concern about the potential impact of changes at the Economic Research Service (ERS), the office within the U.S. Department of Agriculture whose staff collect and analyze the data on food security. Policymakers, advocates, the people most affected, and the public must continue to have access to complete, accurate data. 

This issue also introduces the Institute’s new report, Applying Racial Equity to U.S. Federal Nutrition Programs: SNAP, WIC, and Child Nutrition.  It describes how one family is participating in a maternal/child nutrition program in Kenya, and it considers lessons from Hurricane Maria as hurricane season begins again.

September also brings the 74th session of the U.N. General Assembly and surrounding events in New York. Among the most significant events is the Climate Action Summit, to be convened by U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. Amid the urgency of all climate change efforts, the Climate Action Summit stands out as especially important because it calls on all countries to fulfill and expand the commitments made in the landmark Paris Climate Agreement of December 2015.

The Paris Agreement was groundbreaking because for the first time, countries around the world acknowledged the need to act quickly on climate change and offered specific plans to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases. The next steps are for all countries to ensure that their 2015 commitments are met and to make specific new commitments. Growing evidence shows that climate change is already contributing to hunger and will affect future food security. Catastrophic levels of global warming can be avoided only if the world reaches zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050—which is very ambitious but can be achieved.

It is encouraging that a deeper and more sophisticated understanding of climate change is beginning to produce more detailed, effective research and action agendas. The upcoming summit will focus on a global transition to renewable energy; sustainable and resilient infrastructures and cities; nature based solutions in agriculture, forestry, and oceans; resilience and adaptation to climate impacts; and alignment of public and private finance. Three additional cross-cutting issues are mitigation strategy, youth engagement and public mobilization, and social and political drivers.

One summit participant who set out for New York earlier than most is Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist, who does not fly or take cruise ships because of the carbon impact but was able to cross the Atlantic from Portsmouth, England, on the Malizia II, a high-tech but low-frills sailing ship equipped with solar panels and hydro generators that enable it to reach zero net emissions.  The work of advocates pushing governments to respond effectively to climate change, whether they are large organizations or individuals, is more important than ever. It will take very strong political will and support to provide researchers and other innovative thinkers with the resources they need to develop effective large-scale solutions.

Asma Lateef is director of Bread for the World Institute

Asma Lateef is director of Bread for the World Institute.

P.S. For more on climate change and four other top-priority action areas for the anti-hunger movement, see the 2019 Hunger Report, Back to Basics: How to End Hunger by 2030.

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Photo: Bread for the World Institute

USAID’s New Nutrition Leadership Council Debuts at Bread

By Tanuja Rashogi

Bread for the World Institute was privileged to host the first briefing by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)’s new Nutrition Leadership Council (NLC), on August 29 at its Washington, DC, offices. All three of the senior leaders who comprise the Nutrition Leadership Council were in attendance. Each represents a USAID department whose programs work extensively on improving nutrition: Dr. Monique Wubbenhorst of the Global Health Bureau; Dr. Beth Dunford of the Bureau of Resilience and Food Security; and Mr. Trey Hicks of Food for Peace. The NLC was established as part of a restructuring of USAID that Congress approved earlier this year.

As one of only 10 Leadership Councils at USAID, the NLC elevates nutrition to a top-priority cross-cutting issue. It promises to accelerate USAID’s coordination of its many sectoral programs (such as food, health, water, and humanitarian assistance programs) so that U.S. development assistance improves child nutrition as effectively as possible.

The USAID leaders were warmly welcomed to Bread for the World Institute by a full house of advocates and technical experts from organizations around Washington, DC. Attendees were delighted to hear of USAID’s steps forward but also urged further action to accelerate progress on nutrition. This is particularly important in countries with high levels of child malnutrition. It is also important for USAID to work with other donor governments to increase the impact of their collective efforts.

Bread and USAID plan to host similar events to build further momentum on global nutrition.

Tanuja Rashogi is senior global nutrition policy advisor with Bread for the World Institute.

Special Report: Applying Racial Equity to U.S. Federal Nutrition Assistance Programs

The Institute’s Special Report on Racial Equity in Nutrition Programs Is Here!

By Marlysa D. Gamblin

New Year’s 2020 is four short months from now—meaning that the world has just over 10 years to reach the 2030 global goals, including ending hunger and all forms of malnutrition. 

Bread for the World Institute has long emphasized the need to find solutions to the structural barriers that prevent people from freeing themselves from food insecurity and hunger. In the United States, structural racism puts people of color, including African Americans, Indigenous people, Native Hawaiians, and Latino/a communities, at greater risk of hunger and poverty. Depending on the state, communities of color may be up to six times as likely to be food insecure as white communities. Unless structural barriers are addressed in a meaningful way, people will continue to be hungry in the United States.

Bread for the World Institute has been working on ways to help people understand both why there are wide disparities in hunger and food insecurity rates based on race, and what to do about them. The Racial Wealth Gap Learning Simulation explained the history of racist policies that created such disparities in wealth and the policies and practices that maintain them today. Since the simulation was made available online in 2018, the Institute has received more than 500 requests for information on what organizations and individuals can do to help dismantle structural racism. 

The answer is to build policies and institutions that are racially equitable. Racial equity calls for targeted investments that enable people of color to overcome the effects of discrimination and reach optimal outcomes. In practice, how can organizations apply a racial equity lens to policies, programs, and institutional practices to create greater racial equity?

For the past year, the Institute has focused on answering this question in the context of federal nutrition programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and Child Nutrition programs such as school meals. This included hosting a series of consultations and focus groups with participants in nutrition programs, researchers, and agency staff to learn how various policies and programs already promote equity and how they could improve their efforts to promote racial equity and address racial disparities. In the process, we also learned what organizations and communities of color were already doing to promote equity within their own contexts and recommended these strategies to other communities. 

The Institute is pleased to announce that after a full year of research and writing, a special report on racial equity and hunger has now been released! The report offers three detailed case studies (SNAP, WIC, and Child Nutrition) to help organizations, individuals, and policy makers apply a racial equity lens to federal policies. 
One of the most exciting aspects of the report is a methodology designed to help researchers apply a racial equity lens. It is also available for others to apply a racial equity lens to their work, and the Institute encourages its use by advocates whether inside or outside the field of nutrition. It is a short, easy-to-use resource that guides users through a set of five straightforward steps with associated questions. 

In addition to the methodology, the report includes analysis and recommendations. It identifies three ways that all the programs studied are currently using to promote equity—incorporating elements of inclusivity in their eligibility criteria; featuring policies that target support to those individuals and families most in need; and promoting aspects of equity-centered approaches that make it easier for people to participate.

Finally, here is a summary of the findings on how programs can apply a stronger racial equity lens:  

  1. Center program solutions around the needs of communities of color, so that these needs are central to how the program is designed and implemented rather than being left as an afterthought.
  2. Expand inclusivity so that more people of color who are currently excluded can benefit from the programs.
  3. Strengthen practices that make it easier for applicants to access support, including eliminating barriers that communities of color sometimes face under current design and implementation practices. 
  4. Increase support and accountability among implementing staff, to ensure that they are racially representative and actively implementing a culturally competent racial equity lens. 
  5. Create structures that empower recipients of color to equitably engage in improving programs in all stages: design, implementation and evaluation. 
  6. Strengthen the collection and reporting of data disaggregated by race and ethnicity, so that each program has a more comprehensive understanding of who is being served, who is not being served, and the impact of various interventions and programs. 

Read more in the full report, Applying Racial Equity to U.S. Federal Nutrition Assistance Programs: SNAP, WIC, and Child Nutrition.

Marlysa D. Gamblin is domestic advisor for policy and programs, specific populations, at Bread for the World Institute. 

The Jamie L. Whitten, Federal Building, U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C. USDA / Ken Hammond

Ending Hunger Requires a Strong, Well-Equipped Economic Research Service

By Marlysa D. Gamblin

To end hunger, it is critical to have accurate data on what the scope of the problem is and on whether or how it is changing from month to month or from year to year. The data enables policymakers and advocates to gauge which interventions are most effective in reducing hunger.

For many years, researchers, people most affected by hunger, and the public alike have relied on the Economic Research Service (ERS) for this data. ERS is an agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Its publications include an annual flagship report, Household Food Security in the United States. The report provides a comprehensive analysis of U.S. food security broadly, including tracking changes and trends nationwide, within different demographic groups, and by state, household type, and other categories. ERS publications are widely trusted as accurate sources.

The administration recently ordered the Economic Research Service and its staff to move to Kansas City, Missouri, from its current headquarters in Washington, DC. This has already led to significant disruption in ERS’ work, since well over half of the staff have chosen to leave their jobs rather than move to Kansas City. Just 72 of the 171 experienced professionals doing this essential work remain on staff.

To make real change, we need real numbers. Currently, half of all U.S. households are asset poor; a financial emergency such as losing a job or becoming ill would put them at immediate risk – one paycheck away—of falling into food insecurity and/or poverty. As the 2018 Hunger Report, The Jobs Challenge, pointed out, while participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) has fallen since its peak during the Great Recession years, there are still more than 40 million people who qualify for financial support to put food on the table. See, for example, the ERS food security data from 2017.

The number of SNAP participants has held steady, month in and month out, even while unemployment has fallen to near-record lows. Without accurate data, we could not confirm that full employment is not in fact reducing food insecurity as many had assumed it would, and we would not necessarily know to look for another factor to explain this outcome. (As the Hunger Report explains, the most important such factor is the low wages paid to many workers). 

Analyzing data over time relies heavily on institutional knowledge, as does maintaining a strong, valid research methodology. Suddenly moving the ERS is likely to also move research, analysis, and interventions on food insecurity and hunger in the United States—but in the wrong direction. 

Marlysa D. Gamblin is domestic advisor for policy and programs, specific populations, at Bread for the World Institute. 

Jordan Teague / Bread for the World

Reaching Farming Families with Nutrition in Kenya

By Jordan Teague

It is not possible to end hunger in any community without improving nutrition. The areas with the highest rates of hunger around the world are primarily rural and primarily conflict-affected. They are also increasingly affected by climate change. It is certainly ironic that the communities where most people rely on agriculture for their livelihoods are also the hungriest communities.

Many agricultural assistance programs focus on enabling farming families to increase yields, access markets and credit, and generate income. It would seem to make sense that such programs, since they work with families who face hunger and malnutrition, would also include services to help strengthen maternal and child nutrition—but doing so has been rare in the past. This is, however, the model that  One Acre Fund is now following in Kenya. With a grant from the Child Investment Fund Foundation, One Acre Fund is piloting programs that seek to improve nutrition among members of the farming families who already participate in their agricultural programs.

Violet and her husband, Peter, are farmers who live near Kakamega, Kenya. They participate in One Acre Fund’s core package of services, which includes loans to buy agriculture inputs such as seeds and fertilizer, training in farming techniques, assistance to improve their harvest storage methods, and better access to data that will help them maximize their profits at the market.

The couple’s first child, a girl named Blessing, was born prematurely in November 2018. When I met her in April 2019, Blessing had turned 6 months old earlier that week and she was healthy and thriving! Unfortunately, this is not the outcome for many other preemies born in this part of Kenya. What made the difference for Blessing?

Participation in One Acre Fund’s pilot program focused on nutrition is enabling Violet to maintain good nutrition for herself and her baby. Community Health Volunteers and One Acre Fund staff visit Violet and Blessing each month, separately from the family’s core agricultural services. They help Violet understand what she should eat, first as a pregnant woman and then as a breastfeeding mother, and what she should feed Blessing. Violet also receives nutritional supplements, soap for handwashing, and chlorine to treat the family’s drinking water during the home visits, along with resources to help diversify the family’s diet—eight chickens to raise for eggs and seeds to grow local vegetables.

When I visited Violet and Blessing, Maureen, a staff person from One Acre Fund, reviewed with Violet the foods she had been eating recently, offered tips on breastfeeding, and explained why and how to introduce foods to Blessing now that she was 6 months old. This is often a risky time for babies, because breast milk can no longer meet 100 percent of their nutritional needs. Families need both the resources and the knowledge to begin feeding babies food to prevent them from becoming malnourished. In the next visits, Maureen would explain best practices for caring for sick children, as well as why young children need immunizations and deworming.

Bread for the World Institute has long promoted holistic approaches to ending hunger and malnutrition. It is encouraging to see organizations like One Acre Fund responding to the range of needs of the households they serve. Using agricultural programs already in place as a platform to improve nutrition is an important step toward meeting the global goals of reducing, and then ending, malnutrition.

Jordan Teague is senior international policy advisor with Bread for the World Institute.

San Juan, PR - Image from Sept. 23, 2017, shows damage to Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria. Lessons learned from that storm were incorporated into recent tsunami drill held on the island. National Guard / Sgt. Jose Diaz-Ramos

A Tale of Two Islands and a Hurricane

By Karyn Bigelow

September is the peak of the annual hurricane season. This time of year saw historic storms such as Hurricanes Katrina, Harvey, and Irene. Less than two weeks ago, Hurricane Dorian caused widespread destruction in the Bahamas.

In 2017, Hurricanes Maria and Irma devastated islands across the Caribbean, including Puerto Rico and Dominica. Not to be confused with the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, Dominica lies halfway between Puerto Rico and Trinidad and Tobago. Both islands faced the same storms, but the emergency and recovery responses were quite different and were crucial to the lives of thousands of people.

Hurricane Maria destroyed a great deal of infrastructure in both Puerto Rico and Dominica. People were left without food, clean water, and housing. In Dominica, 90 percent of the housing was destroyed, and damage amounted to about 225 percent of the country’s entire annual GDP. Puerto Rico’s power grid was knocked out, leaving 3.4 million U.S. citizens without electricity. The damage in Puerto Rico was estimated at $90 billion. Two years later, both islands are still recovering.

The key contrast between the two islands is the number of people who died as a result of the storms. Examining the success and failures of each island is important for future planning, particularly since climate change means that extremely powerful storms are more frequent.

Researchers at several universities have studied Puerto Rico’s mortality rates from September to December 2017 compared with the same period in earlier years. This enabled them to estimate the number of “excess” deaths—deaths that would not have been expected in the absence of the hurricanes. While there is no consensus on a final number, all found that thousands of people died  as a result of Hurricane Maria, with estimates ranging from 2975 to 4645. No population was untouched, but low-income populations were disproportionately impacted. People with low socioeconomic status were at a 45 percent higher risk of death.

It is important to note that few of the deaths in Puerto Rico took place during the actual storm. Most were due to lack of access to medications and medical services. For example, many roads were blocked and there were no traffic lights, so paramedics were unable to reach most patients quickly.

There was essentially no plan in place to respond to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. Earlier in 2017, when major hurricanes were expected in Texas and Florida, significant numbers of trained military personnel had been deployed to the areas in advance, with others arriving in the immediate aftermath. The National Guard sent more than 10,000 personnel to Texas and 8,000 to Florida. They conducted prompt search and rescue operations, delivered essential supplies to those affected by the storm, and made repairs to help restore public services such as utilities more quickly.

Puerto Rico, however, had few emergency responders present in advance, despite the predicted magnitude of the storm, and more than a week after Hurricane Maria, few additional personnel had arrived. It took even longer—10 days after the storm—for authorities to appoint a commander to coordinate emergency response.

In Dominica, 400 miles away, better preparations saved many lives. Two weeks before Hurricane Maria, the Caribbean was hit by Hurricane Irma. The World Food Program (WFP), along with UNICEF and the Caribbean Agency for Emergency Management in Disasters (CDEMA), coordinated to respond to Hurricane Irma, reaching 25,000 affected residents.  The earlier plan proved essential to respond to Hurricane Maria. For example, since staff had already conducted emergency assessments in Dominica and outlying islands, emergency workers had a clearer idea of how many people would need assistance and their locations.

Dominica has fewer resources than the United States; moreover, a larger percentage of its population having lost their homes and possessions, Dominica had 65 deaths associated with the hurricanes. Any loss of life is not a victory, but 65 deaths is nevertheless a far better outcome and shows the importance of advance planning and prompt response in the immediate aftermath of storms and other natural disasters.

As climate change makes oceans warmer, storms are expected to be more frequent and more severe. National governments are responsible for protecting hundreds of millions of people who live along coastlines. They must realize the need for careful advance planning and for stronger social protection programs, particularly in marginalized communities, that will enable governments to respond to emergencies more quickly and effectively.

Karyn Bigelow is a research associate with Bread for the World Institute. 


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