by Zahra Baptiste, communications manager
Over the past several months, Canadian Feed The Children has been closely working with our partner communities to understand and address the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on children and families. The virus posed an urgent challenge to food security for families around the world, including in Indigenous First Nations and communities in Canada.
“We are bad, we are in crisis. There is no food and no job,” said Julio, a father of four in Bolivia whom we interviewed in May. He had come to collect an urgent food hamper from a drive organized by our local partner SCSJ. “I used to work in construction, but everything is stopped. I have no income now but at least [we have] the assistance you provide us.”
It was a story we heard in every country we work in – no income, no school, no food. Parents and caregivers repeatedly expressed fear that they could not feed their children, as all their usual supports had disappeared. CFTC mobilized immediately to help provide food hampers, educational supplies for children, sanitation supplies, and information on how to stop the spread of the virus.
Even as parents and communities dealt with the immediate crisis, they also spoke about their plans to face a future shaped by the pandemic. Taking the lead from them, here are some key areas to address for a food secure post-COVID recovery.
A WORLDWIDE FOOD SECURITY CRISIS
The novel coronavirus has exposed and worsened existing inequalities, including around food security. In April, the World Food Programme warned that “the number of people facing acute food insecurity stands to rise to 265 million in 2020 … as a result of the economic impact of COVID-19” – that’s double the number of people in 2019.
Ahmed is a farmer, mason and father of four living in Ghana. Over the past several years, he and his wife had grown a successful farming business, the family was food secure, and their children were well supported in school. He told us in June that his masonry income has dried up, and that he is worried about the long-term viability of his farm.
“My monthly income dropped, which seriously impacted the ability to feed my children. I cannot afford to hire extra help on my farm. I am foreseeing how COVID-19 will greatly impact our lives beyond just this year.”
The Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS) predicts that agricultural production will fall steeply this year, as restrictions mean farmers cannot take full advantage of the growing season in many African countries, including in Ethiopia and Ghana. This will have a ripple effect on food supply around the world.
This negative effect is compounded for women and girls. Eighty percent of smallholder farmers worldwide are women, but they often do not have rights to the land they farm, and lack decision making power over their lives. Many also lack access to savings or credit and are more vulnerable to economic shocks as a result. In addition, a recent report by UN Women states that violence against women and girls is likely to intensify as stay-at-home orders force them into close contact with abusers for extended periods. The economic hardship that many families face means that girls are in danger of being withdrawn from school and forced into early marriage.
KEY ELEMENTS OF A FOOD-SECURE RECOVERY
Families and communities around the world are already working on recovery plans. After consulting with some of them, a few key elements emerged.
Reinforcing local, sustainable food systems
For Indigenous First Nations and communities in Canada, the shutdowns reinforced the need for local, sustainable food systems. In Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, a community garden had already been established, but the COVID-19 crisis led community members to ramp up household participation in gardening. Dorothy Ahenakew, a local food security coordinator, spoke to us in June about how this works:
“I’ve started some seedlings in my house, as have other community members. The seedlings are small scale for now and are destined to be planted into our community garden tunnel. All the produce that will be grown in the garden tunnel will be distributed to community members.”
In Bolivia, the current pandemic response has included opportunities for community members to sell their produce locally, rather than in the main city they are no longer able to visit. Other local activities are being planned. “We would love to implement a bakery and pastry workshop for women in local areas so they can transform their vegetable production into healthy pastries for families,” says Shirley Estévez Villazón, CFTC’s Bolivia Country Director.
For most of the communities we work with, plans like these were already in place, but the pandemic has increased their urgency.
Centering girls and women
Centering girls and women has always been critical to reducing poverty, but the pandemic is currently threatening this progress in many communities.
In Uganda, when schools were closed, workers with our local partner HUYSLINCI knew that access to education for rural students, especially girls, would be severely limited. Most children could not participate in remote learning as it required access to electricity, radio, television, and other technology that they lacked. To address this, community volunteers provided 81 students with workbooks, school supplies, and a direct phone number to teachers for the remainder of the school term.
A focus on educational support, along with activities like safe-spaces programming for girls or community-based sexual and reproductive health campaigns to highlight the risks of early marriage and gender-based violence, will be a crucial part of post-COVID recovery. Now more than ever, we must keep girls safe and in school.
Reinforcing the value of women’s economic participation, particularly in agriculture, is also a major focus. A recent report by the Canadian Food Security Policy Group demonstrates how empowering female smallholder farmers increases food security for all.
Zenebech, a farmer and leader of the women’s cooperative Megartu in Ethiopia, agrees. “It is important that women have opportunities like this,” she says. “Besides the financial benefits, it helps us to break the belief that women should stay at home. Today in addition to my home garden and cash crops, I plough other people’s farming land. I’m always trying to expand my sources of income.”
Based on these past successes, communities are renewing focus on empowering women and girls through the pandemic and beyond.
Building climate change resilience
While climate change is not directly responsible for the spread of COVID-19, evidence shows that increasing climate change resilience is critical for preparing for future pandemics. Climate change is already a major driver of food insecurity, creating erratic weather that makes farming unpredictable, increases the incidence of pests and crop disease, and reduces habitat for the wildlife that is traditionally hunted.
Climate change resilience was already on the forefront of food security efforts, and it has never been more important. For Mata, a farmer in Ghana, climate-smart farming was personally life-changing. Prior to adopting this method, her farm was decimated by army worm, a pest that has devastated crops in over 40 African countries since 2017. She would harvest only six bags of groundnut per acre. After using certified climate-smart seeds along with techniques to reduce soil erosion and food waste, she was able to increase her yields to ten bags of groundnut, three bags of soya, and two bags of beans.
“As the climate and weather keeps changing, farming practices need to be resilient,” she says. “Now I cultivate these crops and it helps me to feed my children far better than before.”
For Indigenous First Nations and communities, traditional food is key
“Our hunters were able to bring back four caribou, which provided quite a bit of meat that was packaged and given to Elders and families,” say Rebecca Sylvestre and Hélène Hébert of the Turnor Lake and Birch Narrows Community Food Centre in Saskatchewan.
For Birch Narrows Dene Nation, traditional food was a key part of emergency response to the food insecurity caused by COVID-19 lockdown. It will also be a key focus of community recovery, as they accelerate their plans to increase access to local, culturally appropriate foods, through a new community garden and hunting traditional game like caribou, rabbits and fish.
Theirs is not the only community focusing on traditional food as part of a post-COVID recovery. In Atikameg First Nation in Alberta, urgent food hampers also included fishing supplies to help families catch their own fish. Moving forward, traditional food will play an important part in rebuilding community connections. Darrell Fors, an educator in Atikameg, says that “So many stories and connections are made, not only with the people you hunt and fish with, but with nature.” For him, traditional food is also a chance for children to learn and be proud of their food and culture from a young age.
TAKING THE NEXT STEPS
These are just some of the themes we have heard from communities around the world on building a food-secure post-pandemic future. As children and families grapple with current challenges, we know that new ones will arise, and priorities will change as a result. But as Canadians, we must support global recovery efforts that further the self-determined goals of communities around the world. This is the only way for us as a global community to recover, no matter where we live. As the Honourable Karina Gould, Minister of International Development, says:
“The COVID-19 virus knows no borders. This has been a wake-up call for the world to stand in solidarity and work together. If there was ever a time for countries and governments to support one another… it is right now.”
Sources and further reading:
- COVID-19 will double number of people facing food crises unless swift action taken (World Food Programme)
- COVID-19 pandemic drives global increase in humanitarian food assistance needs (FEWS)
- The Shadow Pandemic: Violence Against Women and Girls and COVID-19 (UN Women)
- As pandemic rages, women and girls face intensified risks (UN Africa Renewal)
- COVID-19 Update: Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation grows food, hope and security (Canadian Feed The Children)
- Leaders in the Field: A Case for Investing in Inclusive, Resilient Food Systems (Canadian Food Security Policy Group)
- 100 Women Strong (Canadian Feed The Children)
- COVID-19: A pivotal moment to support women farmers (World Bank)
- COVID-19 Update: Birch Narrows and Turnor Lake come together to tackle food insecurity (Canadian Feed The Children)
- Canada’s support for international efforts to fight the COVID-19 pandemic (Global Affairs Canada)