We Can End Hunger by Looking Beyond Food

Monjuara is a Bangladeshi mother who learned new health, agriculture and nutrition practices from USAID. She is passing on what she learned to other members of her community. /Josh Estey for USAID

When you think of food assistance, often you think about just the food part of the equation — how many tons of food or what type of food people are receiving or buying in local markets.

But experience has shown that one of the more successful ways food assistance programs can tackle chronic hunger and poverty is by looking beyond food.

In Bangladesh, three development food assistance projects — carried out by the U.S. Government’s Feed the Future initiative through USAID’s Office of Food for Peace — recently reduced food insecurity and improved health and nutrition in targeted poor and extremely poor communities.

From 2010 to 2015, these three projects reduced stunting by more than 20 percent for the 604,000 participating households, in some cases reducing the prevalence of stunting by three to four times the national average.

Monjuara used to worry about her sons’ health. But since she began feeding her children vegetables and protein-rich food, their health has improved. /Josh Estey for USAID

Nutrition improved. Household incomes rose. With an average household size of five, these programs made a difference for more than 3 million people.

How did they do it?

By looking at food security from all angles and asking the right questions. For example, how did families earn incomes to put food on the table? How much food did families produce on their land — only enough to feed their families, or were they able to sell crops too? Were moms and their children able to access health services? What were the causes of malnutrition in the communities?

These questions and more framed how USAID’s partners — CARE, ACDI/VOCA and Save the Children — tackled chronic hunger and poverty in the communities where they worked. And it worked.

Stunting is malnutrition caused by chronic food insecurity. It affects cognitive development, reducing a person’s educational achievement and earning potential, and decreasing a country’s GDP. Stunting is rarely reversible after the age of 2, thus, proper nutrition in the first 1,000 days of life, from pregnancy until the second birthday, is essential. Stunting is identified by low height for age, defined as a height that is more than two standard deviations below the World Health Organization child growth standards median.

The programs taught mothers, fathers and others in the family with child-rearing responsibilities the importance of good nutrition, and how to better care for their children. USAID partners mentored families to ensure more frequent health clinic visits, helped them access healthy food through temporary food transfers, and provided cooking demonstrations to expand use of locally available nutritious foods.

Monjuara is a Bangladeshi mother who wants the best for her children. Armed with new health, agriculture and nutrition practices she learned from USAID, Monjuara can continue to dream of a better life for her family and is paying it forward in her community. In Bangladesh, where over 60 million people survive on less than $1.25 per day, USAID is arming millions of parents like Monjuara with the skills to break the cycle of poverty.

The programs also empowered individuals to improve their incomes so they could sustain these healthful practices after the programs ended. Poor, smallholder farmers learned improved agricultural techniques to expand production and sell their goods through commercial channels.

In some communities, rice yields increased by 49 percent to as much as 139 percent, depending on the variety of rice, by the end of the programs.

Taroni Kanta Shikari is a rice farmer in Bangladesh who owns 3.65 acres of land. With USAID’s help, he learned new agricultural practices and has increased his income each year for the last five years. /Josh Estey for USAID

Business advisers helped farmers and small business owners to connect with private sector dealers, traders and government service providers so they could sell their produce, animals or handicrafts collectively at reasonable prices.

With these connections, farmers’ agricultural sales increased by as much as 17 percent over the five years, and their average household monthly per capita income doubled.

Successes like these have informed our new Office of Food for Peace strategy, which focuses on improving and sustaining food and nutrition security through a multipronged approach. I’m excited about our strategy launch, scheduled for October, close to World Food Day, and look forward to discovering how it will help USAID, its partners and communities move the needle toward ending hunger.

About the Author

Dina Esposito is the Director of USAID’s Office of Food for Peace. Follow her @DEsposito_FFP.