THE COVID-19 pandemic exposed and dramatically deepened food insecurity, hunger and undernutrition globally. According to the World Bank, the pandemic reversed years of development gains in numerous countries.
The bank noted in a recent report entitled, “Food Insecurity and COVID-19” that the World Food Programme estimates that approximately 270 million people “are already at risk of becoming acutely food-insecure in the countries where it operates.
“Acute food insecurity is defined as when a person’s life or livelihood is in immediate danger because of lack of food.” Acute hunger was already on the rise globally because of a number of factors including the global climate emergency, conflict and various socio-economic conditions within countries and regions.
Action Against World Hunger reports: “Around the world, more than enough food is produced to feed the global population but as many as 811 million people still go hungry. After steadily declining for a decade, world hunger is on the rise, affecting 9.9 percent of people globally. From 2019 to 2020, the number of undernourished people grew by as many as 161 million.”
At home, the onslaught of the pandemic, with the resulting shellshock to our tourism-dependent economy, quickly resulted in tens of thousands of Bahamians incapable of finding adequate and nutritious food. The country risked mass hunger and extreme social dislocation and disorder, including a rise in various social problems.
With no income, no savings and no one to turn to, thousands of Bahamians were at risk from hunger, including many thousands of children. This greater insecurity exposed the many Bahamians already suffering from food insecurity and undernutrition as well as the social and economic inequality in the country.
In one of the greatest public-partnerships and one of the more ambitious social intervention initiatives in Bahamian history, the administration of former Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis responded aggressively, creating the Food Assistance Task Force.
The Food Assistance Programme became a stellar example of good government working with non-governmental organisations and the business community to meet an extraordinary moment in our history.
Other countries did not meet the moment, resulting in riots, and an increase in criminality and other social problems. What would have happened in The Bahamas if the food and the generous economic assistance programmes were never instituted?
Various international agencies have applauded the social and economic assistance efforts of the former government during the pandemic. The $54m programme, which began in the Spring of 2020, was headed by Susan Holowesko Larson, who gave exemplary national service.
The Task Force proved an extraordinary partnership network, which included the Bahamas Feeding Network, the Grand Bahama Food Assistance Committee, Hands for Hunger, IDEA Relief, Lend a Hand Bahamas, One Eleuthera Foundation and the Bahamas Red Cross during 2020. An army of volunteers responded to needs of others.
Holowesko Larson stated: “For 70 weeks without interruption, and all the while in the face of the global COVID-19 pandemic, food security for tens of thousands of Bahamian households was assured.
“It has elevated awareness of what can be achieved when the government embraces the private sector as a willing and able partner, and, in return, the private sector contributes its experience and know-how for the greater good. It has cemented the role such partnerships should play in national development as our country moves forward.
“Crises may produce failure or opportunities. The Bahamas did not fail at this critical moment! Instead, the pandemic helped the country to advance a potential model of social justice for the common good, with many lessons learned because of the historic achievements and work of the Task Force.”
Because of what the pandemic exposed and because of the lessons from the Task Force, the Free National Movement promoted in its Manifesto 2021, a Universal School Meals programme to offer free breakfast, lunch and snacks to the approximately 40,000 students in government-operated schools.
This proposal represents one of the greatest possibilities for social development in the country’s history. Will we fail to meet the pregnant moment?
Given the degree of food insecurity, undernutrition and levels of obesity, including childhood obesity, The Bahamas should not go back to business as usual in responding to the need for nutritious food for those requiring assistance. This is a matter of economic good sense and social justice.
The work of the Task Force ended last week. In response, the new Minister of Social Services and Urban Development Minister Obie Wilchcombe offered some ideas on how his Ministry will address the needs of those who were once served by the food programme.
The Minister deserves some time to get this right and to design a transition programme. His proposals thus far appear to require rethinking and clearer ideas and direction. Senior political leaders in the former administration reportedly intended to have a transition programme to meet the needs of many of those previously served.
Mr Wilchcombe cited some of the costs of the Task Force’s efforts. Mrs Holowesko Larson offered some basics on the economics of the programme: “The weekly spend of the programme during 2021 was slightly more than $768,000.”
She noted: “The money goes quickly when you divide it by the 18,000 households requiring assistance this year… The math is straightforward: with a weekly budget of $768,000 the breakdown per household unit was $42.66 which included non-food expenses.”
A number of critical policy lessons were learned before and during the work of the Task Force. A primary lesson: The Bahamas Government in general and the Ministry of Social Services in particular cannot currently respond to the magnitude of the needs on their own. Moreover, the various feed programmes are about to be swamped and cannot meet the demands on their own.
Many governments globally require public-private partnership to efficiently and effectively run various food programmes. The government has proven notoriously inept and bungling in running food warehouses such as the old Produce Exchange on Potter’s Cay Dock to the NEMA warehouse. Now it proposes to manage an even larger warehouse?
After various hurricanes, there has often been a terrible wastage of food. Then there is the degree of theft or corruption by those using warehouses for personal gain. Will political patronage now be a problem in how food is purchased and supplied?
Running a warehouse and supply chain logistics require excellent management, robust oversight and good technology and communications networks. There are many good people in Social Services who do fine work and evince compassion. But neither the Ministry nor the Department has the capacity or expertise in warehouse management.
Mrs Holowesko Larson warns: “Warehousing food for a centralised pantry concept was considered by the Task Force in its formative weeks. The Task Force considered this to be extremely resource intensive, requiring huge outlays of cash and then ongoing administrative costs that would diminish the pure investment in food.
“Given the urgency, the unknown duration of the programme, and the enormous administrative infrastructure this concept would require, the Task Force did not consider it to be a viable option.”
During the pandemic, the previous administration also created the National Vaccine Consultative Committee. Given the demands on the Ministry of Health and at times the dearth of leadership and competence at senior levels by some public officers, the vaccine roll-out would have been dramatically less effective without the committee’s robust work and interventions.
The new government is about to learn some hard lessons about policy-making, logistics, crisis management and public tolerance.
It would do well to consider hard lessons already learned, to eschew recreating the proverbial wheel, and to seek the advice and counsel of individuals like the heads of the food programmes, Mrs Holowesko Larson, the business community and others who can help them from bucking their heads and their toes.
Food insecurity can quickly metastasize into all manner of social dysfunction, including increased crime, more domestic abuse and greater poverty.
If the government does not respond adequately, imaginatively and comprehensively to the demand for food, the looming crisis may quickly turn disastrous, upending all manner of best intentions and plans.
Asked by a reporter if he was concerned about Evander Holyfield and his fight plan, Mike Tyson famously responded: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
The government is about to be hit by a number of social realities it may not understand.
Even worse than having an inadequate plan, is having no comprehensive plan at all to respond to the tens of thousands of Bahamians who are now looking for food to feed their families. The last words are Bob Marley’s: “A Hungry Man is a Angry Man.”