Every five seconds, a child dies from hunger-related diseases, and nearly 1 billion people go to bed hungry every night.
That is too many. There has never been a greater need for a comprehensive and sustainable approach to tackling hunger and malnutrition. A growing world population, volatile food prices, natural disasters and human conflict make it increasingly difficult for people to feed and nourish themselves. And in a tough budget climate, we must maximize the effect of our aid dollars. Impact is about efficiency, effectiveness and commitment.
The United States has long been a leader in responding to hunger crises, helping more than 3 billion people in 150 countries. We should be proud of these achievements, but we should strive to be better. Our food aid system is outdated and constrained by decades-old policies that require commodities to be purchased in the United States and shipped overseas — even when food is available nearer the crisis. This means aid is slow, taking an average of more than four months to reach people in need. Food purchased locally could arrive almost two months faster. That’s efficient. For a malnourished child, that’s potentially a lifetime.
Requiring that we purchase and ship U.S. commodities also means as much as half of funding is spent on transportation and administrative costs rather than food. With the scope of emergencies and food crises growing in places such as Syria, we need to make every penny count.
President Barack Obama’s food aid reform proposal is timely and essential. The more flexible plan enables the United States to reach as many as 4 million more people every year — faster and without increased spending. American farmers will continue to play a vital role in our response to hunger. In areas of crisis where food is not available, the United States will continue to transport American commodities. However, when food is available closer to the area of need, the United States can purchase it locally or enable hungry populations access to the market, supporting local farmers growing their incomes and their own resilience to crises. That’s efficient.
Food aid reform is a critical component of an efficient approach to tackling hunger and malnutrition, but we also need an effective approach. That means addressing emergency food and nutrition needs and hungry families’ long-term ability to grow their own food and raise their own incomes. Effective means investing in women, the majority of smallholder farmers, and in nutrition during the critical 1,000-day window from conception to a child’s second birthday.
But it isn’t enough just to feed a family; families must also have adequate nutritious food. Not only does malnutrition contribute to one-third of childhood deaths, but, should a child survive, the negative effect on a child’s cognitive development and economic potential is often irreversible. Nutrition is a smart and effective investment — for every $1 invested in reducing undernutrition, we see a $30 return on investment in terms of increased health, schooling and productivity. That’s effective.
The United States is not alone in committing to the fight against hunger and undernutrition. Earlier this year, I visited Benin as part of the Scaling Up Nutrition movement, a country-led, global effort to eliminate malnutrition around the world. Benin is home to almost 1 million stunted children but is also one of 35 countries leading the way on nutrition as part of SUN. Benin allocated a portion of its annual budget to support its Strategic Plan for Food and Nutrition Development, which lays out effective approaches to improve nutrition security. That’s commitment. But Benin’s success requires the support of the global nutrition community.
On June 8, global leaders convened under the theme of Nutrition for Growth. During the summit, donors, businesses and foundations pledged to double spending on nutrition and deliver $4.1 billion by 2020, and developing countries set targets for increasing their investments and improving nutrition outcomes. Benin, for example, committed to reduce chronic malnutrition from 43 percent to 30 percent by 2020. The United States pledged that U.S. agriculture and nutrition programs will lead to 2 million fewer stunted children globally.
The time is ripe for the bold leadership we see in the administration’s food aid reform proposal and commitment at Nutrition for Growth summit. It is now incumbent upon Congress to do its part to support efficient, effective action. Congress’ leadership starts with enacting food aid reform. Reps. Ed Royce and Karen Bass have paved the way with legislation to modernize food aid, and we hope that they or other members of Congress will offer constructive amendments to the House farm bill when it is considered. Congress — both the House and the Senate — must get behind a comprehensive, long-term approach that feeds hungry people today and that enables people to grow and buy nutritious food, ultimately creating a stronger, healthier world for us all.
Helene D. Gayle is president and CEO of CARE USA, an international humanitarian organization.