COVID-19: Effects on Hunger, Food Security, Diet and Nutrition

It’s impossible to pick up a newspaper today and not see some alarming statistics on COVID-19. An example of this includes an April 22, 2020 New York Times headline indicating, “Instead of Coronavirus, Hunger will Kill Us.” The latest figures from the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) indicate that the number of people experiencing hunger will likely double from about 135 million prior to the coronavirus pandemic to 260 million. The majority of these individuals who will be affected live in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), with a disproportionate number living in Sub Saharan Africa. The recent Global Report on Food Crises 2020 highlighted the fact that of the 135 million people in 55 countries who faced acute hunger before COVID-19, 101 million live in countries affected by conflict and/or economic crises. This situation is further exacerbated by climate change. Fragile states are projected to experience significant increases in hunger, food insecurity, and malnutrition going forward.

According to WFP, these new hunger projections show the catastrophic scale of the pandemic. The chief economist from WFP emphasized that “We must make sure that tens of millions of people already on the verge of starvation do not succumb to this virus or to its economic consequences in terms of loss of jobs and income.” The WFP economist went on to add, “These people did not need COVID-19. Even without it (Coronavirus) their lives were hanging by a thread.”

The World Health Organization (WHO) and other international groups are predicting increases in malnutrition in both the short and longer terms. Poor nutrition leading to a weak immune system can leave people vulnerable, especially pregnant women, children, the elderly, and those with underlying respiratory illnesses.

There are a variety of underlying factors that have exacerbated the negative efforts of COVID-19. Countries that have imposed national lockdowns have seen a dramatic increase in unemployment and a concomitant decrease in incomes. Poor households are more likely to buy foods that are cheap and with a low nutrient density. This results in diets with high levels of processed foods and basic staples, but low levels of animal source foods, fruits, and vegetables. The currently projected rise in hunger is related, in part, to diets deficient in both quantity and quality. The decrease in animal source foods in the diet is particularly problematic since this limits the micronutrient intake of households. This will occur at the same time that micronutrient distribution programmes may be limited due to restrictions on travel and a decrease in the micronutrient supplements that would normally be distributed as part of child health days.

The demand for health services needed to respond to COVID-19 can strain already overburdened facilities. This could limit essential services like prenatal care, child immunizations, treatment of illnesses such as infections and diarrhea. In addition, some government-operated programmes may be limited or halted entirely; for example, with the closure of schools, feeding programmes may be disrupted.

The food supply chain also may be challenged. A recent report by Heady and Ruel of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) shows evidence of disruption to livestock in China, fruits and vegetables in Ethiopia, and dairy marketing in India. The negative impacts on dairy in India are problematic since milk and milk products are key sources of micronutrients and good quality protein in the diets of children.

Global trade will continue to be important. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), one of every five calories people eat has crossed at least one international border. LMICs account for about one-third of the world’s food trade, which contributes to income, employment, and creation of foreign exchange for the provision of government’s goods and services such as health care, education, and social welfare programmes.

International organizations and national level governments are not standing idly by as COVID-19 devastates populations. Efforts are underway to blunt the effects of COVID-19. WFP is exploring the use of cash transfers delivered electronically, positioning food closest to those most in need, double rations to reduce the number of distributions at any point in time, and providing take-home rations to replace school meals, just to name a few approaches.

The World Bank is providing short- and longer-term financing to mitigate some of the negative impacts of COVID-19. For example, in Angola, the Commercial Agriculture Development Project is helping farmer cooperatives as well as small and mid-sized agricultural enterprises to expand and improve their operations to meet the needs of local communities. In Liberia, the World Bank is working with the government to ensure that food supply chains are intact; the overall purpose of this project is to help the Liberian government meet the immediate food needs of vulnerable groups, keep domestic supply chains moving, and support smallholder farmers to increase food production.

As noted by Ambassador Verburg, the Global Coordinator of the Scaling Up Nutrition Movement, “We’re focusing on the survival of people, but nutrition is part of this.” Collectively innovative strategies are being implemented to curb the scourge of this pandemic. As evidenced by the strategies that have already been put in place, a multi-sector approach is needed to combat COVID-19.

The Feed the Future Ethiopia Growth through Nutrition Activity is part of this global response to protect food security, nutrition, and health. In this time of crisis, Growth through Nutrition has developed an adaptation strategy to prevent a COVID-19 pandemic-induced decline of key nutrition outcomes among its target population of women, adolescents, and young children in the four major regions of Ethiopia. Provisions include capacity building of Community Agents, health extension workers (HEWs), and community leaders on COVID-19 messaging and the like. These are just a few of the many examples of planned activities under Growth through Nutrition’s new COVID-19 related strategy.  


Eileen Kennedy is a former dean of Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. Currently, a professor at the School, her research interests include assessing the health, nutrition, diet, and food security impacts of policies and programs; nutrient density and diet diversity; and agriculture nutrition linkages. She is a member of the High-Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition of the UN Committee on World Food Security, as well as the World Economic Forum's Global Council on Food Security and Nutrition.

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