By Marion Min-Barron Illustration by Diana Ejaita

A call for more resilient food systems.

In my Williams class International Nutrition, I show my students a photograph of about a dozen Rohingya refugee children standing in line waiting for food. The image was taken in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, several years ago, and what’s chilling about the image in today’s context is not necessarily the slight child frames but rather how close they all are to one another. The possibilities of social distancing or self-quarantining in population-dense refugee camps are slim, and they bring to light the myriad challenges Covid-19 presents to the food insecure.

This pandemic has heightened questions of food insecurity across the globe, but in resource-limited settings—particularly those in civil war or conflict, where malnutrition rates were already unacceptably high—the potential effects are magnified. Actors at all levels, from national health ministries to community health workers, are being forced to decide between Covid-19 containment measures and food-access programs. Even before the pandemic began, 2020 was estimated to usher in one of the worst food crises in years. Now, food systems are severely disrupted as many countries enter economic recessions and labor markets suffer from movement restrictions. Some experts predict that if no policy changes are made, there will be multiple famines in coming years.

For now, some countries have worked to keep global food and agricultural pathways open. The goal is to avoid the mistakes that triggered the 2008 Food Price Crisis, when increasing oil prices and demand for biofuel led to trade shocks and the near doubling of wheat and rice prices around the world. That, in turn, helped trigger skyrocketing malnutrition rates among already vulnerable populations. Yet despite efforts to keep food prices more stable, blanket public health restrictions, such as lockdowns, restaurant closings and curfews, have led to labor shortages and disruptions in both food supply and demand chains. Nutrient-dense foods, such as fruits and vegetables, have become not only scarce but also out of reach for those families most in need.

As Covid-19 continues to degenerate economies, humanitarian agencies are pivoting away from emergency disease containment and toward more sustainable, livelihood-based approaches to elevating food security, such as cash transfers. This is when organizations like the World Food Programme provide vulnerable populations with money to meet their basic needs. Cash transfers are logistically easier to deliver than food, can empower people to make choices and give a needed boost to local economies, leading experts to see them as one of the most promising ways to end food insecurity. Accurate and effective targeting of these approaches, however, rests on access to reliable income-tracking programs to know who is most in need. In the time of Covid-19, both governmental and non-governmental agencies are finding new ways to access this necessary data, such as making income estimates from telephone and mobile-usage surveys.

The amount of innovation and technology that has emerged from this pandemic has provided insights into how to create a more resilient food system, giving us hope that, though the challenges we’re facing are large and, in some ways, new, they are not necessarily impossible to overcome.

Portrait of Marion MinBarron
Marion Min-Barron is a visiting assistant professor of public health at Williams. Her research focuses on the nexus of nutrition, agriculture and gender, with a focus on women’s empowerment in East Africa.