09 December 2020

Fight to End Hunger: Interview with World Food Program USA’s Barron Segar

The 2020 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the World Food Programme for  “its efforts to combat hunger, for its contribution to bettering conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas and for acting as a driving force in efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict.”

That work is more important than ever due to the effects of COVID-19—especially as food insecurity disproportionately affects women. To learn more about the task of fighting hunger, Every Woman Every Child interviewed World Food Program USA President and CEO Barron Segar.  This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

As noted in the Nobel Prize announcement, the coronavirus pandemic has contributed to the number of victims of hunger around the world. Can you tell me in more detail about how the pandemic has affected the efforts of WFP, and what WFP USA has been doing in response?

Due to the socio-economic fallout of COVID-19, we are facing a global hunger catastrophe on a scale not seen since WWII. The economic impacts from Covid-19—from the closure of the informal economy to the loss of remittances— threaten to double the number of people facing crisis levels of hunger around the world. We’re estimating that because of COVID-19 the number of severely hungry could rise to more than a quarter of a billion people by the end of 2020.

Already, four countries face the prospect of looming famine (Burkina Faso, northeast Nigeria, South Sudan and Yemen), with more than a dozen others close behind. This global health emergency has become an unprecedented global food security crisis. With it, we are already seeing a rise in destabilizing trends like food-related instability and mass migration. Food assistance, we know, can help prevent these dangerous forces from metastasizing into greater instability. We have launched the largest humanitarian food assistance operation in our history, with plans to feed up to 138 million people by the end of the year. In the first nine months of 2020, the U. N. World Food Programme has scaled-up to reach 97 million people, nearly as many people as we reached in all of 2019. Every day, we are adapting and innovating to meet the unique demands of the pandemic. We estimate that a record 235 million people will need humanitarian assistance and protection in 2021, nearly a 40 percent increase from 2020, almost entirely brought on by the pandemic.

The pandemic has also changed the face of hunger. Urban populations, that were previously immune to food insecurity, are now being dragged into hunger. Over half of the U.N. World Food Programme’s operations are now expanding into urban areas, helping those who had previously managed to escape severe levels of hunger. For example, the U.N. World Food Programme has launched new food and cash programs to support the hungry in urban areas. We’re supporting over 50 governments to scale up their safety nets and social protection programs for the most vulnerable.

The U.N. World Food Programme has been the logistics backbone of the humanitarian community’s pandemic response. Through its sophisticated network of hubs, passenger and cargo airlinks and medevac services, it has transported humanitarian staff as well as cargo including PPE, medical supplies, and food to the frontlines on behalf of 67 humanitarian organizations. As of December 2020, the U.N. World Food Programme has dispatched more than 100,000 cubic meters of critical health and humanitarian cargo to 171 countries to support governments and health partners in their response to COVID-19.

World Food Program USA is doing all it can to help the U.N. World Food Programme’s global response to COVID-19. We secure funds from corporations, foundations and individuals; ensure U.S. policies and policymakers support global hunger initiatives; and, conduct engaging and thought-provoking campaigns that tell our story to an American audience to build awareness and gain support. Our messages about the increasing impact of COVID-19 on vulnerable populations resonated with the American public and when our 2020 fiscal year ended in September of this year, we had exceeded our revenue projections by more than 30 percent.

Every Woman Every Child advocates for the well-being of women, children, and adolescents. How does hunger affect these groups specifically, and what is most at stake now?

Food insecurity disproportionately impacts women. Because of deep-rooted gender norms, war and conflict, and a lack of equal rights and representation, women often eat last and least. In fact, women represent about 60 percent of the world’s food insecure population, and globally, women are more likely than men to live in extreme poverty. The U.N. World Food Programme is tackling this disparity head on, delivering lifesaving support, food assistance and skills training to empower women to not only survive, but thrive. This disparity has become more pronounced during the pandemic.

Good nutrition is essential to maintaining a strong immune system that can fight infection.  This involves consuming adequate micronutrients like zinc and vitamin A which play an important role in the functioning of the immune system. A person with an infection requires more micronutrients to fight off the infection and replenish body reserves. As the pandemic drives up demand for specialized nutrition foods, the U.N. World Food Programme is pre-positioning these items and is working to ensure that manufacturing lines of these foods are not disrupted by trade restrictions. 22 million children and pregnant or breastfeeding women rely on the U.N. World Food Programme for specialized foods that prevent and treat malnutrition.

The pandemic’s impact on school children across the world has been tremendous and the U.N. World Food Programme is working with partners to make sure vulnerable students get back to learning in a safe and healthy way. The coronavirus has disrupted education systems across the world, forcing school closures that have affected 90 percent of the world’s school children. This has huge implications for students’ learning, health and nutrition. Nearly 370 million schoolchildren missed out on school meals on which they depend, exacerbating hunger – including 13 million children who receive school meals from the U.N. World Food Programme. Missing school meals means missing a lifeline to health and nutrition for many children in poor countries. The meal these children get in school is often the only meal they get each day. The U.N. World Food Programme has assisted 7 million schoolchildren in 45 countries affected by school closures with take-home rations or cash-based transfers.

As of December 2020, school systems in over 80 countries still have not yet fully resumed after interruptions to education due to COVID-19. Almost 250 million schoolchildren remain without the school meal they used to rely on. As a result, we estimate between 16 and 24 million students, including 7.6 million girls, are at risk of dropping out of school this year. Our priority now is to enhance support to governments to safely reopen schools and restore access to meals, and to scale up school feeding programs in areas of most need. Our goal is to reach an additional 73 million vulnerable children who did not have access to school meals before the pandemic.

What are some solutions to addressing hunger during the pandemic and beyond? What should policymakers and leaders be doing?

Our ultimate goal is to create a Zero Hunger world. It’s an ambitious goal, but it is possible, if we all unite to do it. The world has enough food to feed everyone. The problem is not a food shortage – it’s access and availability, due to conflict, climate change and extreme weather events, gender inequality, and food loss. As we address global hunger during the pandemic and beyond, funding is critical to our mission, so that we can continue our operations. We have an urgent need for significant funding now, to avert greater death and instability on a global level.

We call on U.S. policymakers and leaders to continue supporting our efforts through the pandemic. The United States is the single largest funder of the U.N. World Food Programme. Last year, the U.S. Government provided over $3.4 billion in support to the organization. This is a bipartisan and bicameral legacy that dates back to the earliest days of the U.N. World Food Programme and it is consistent with the United States’ legacy as a leader in the global fight against hunger. As global hunger threatens an entire generation, our fervent hope is that robust funding for international aid, especially humanitarian food assistance, remains a priority for U.S. policymakers.