The pandemic has caused global hunger to skyrocket, but now the war in Ukraine is making the problem much worse. With Russia and Ukraine together supplying 30% of world wheat exports, much of the world is losing access to food.
Now one of the country’s largest foundations is trying to address some of those challenges with a $105 million plan to improve access to food, make nutritious and healthy food more widely available, and boost food production in ways that doesn’t harm the planet.
Rajiv Shah, President of the Rockefeller Foundation, said the commitment is the largest food effort in Rockefeller history. Over the next three years, the Good Food Strategy aims to ensure that 40 million people worldwide have better access to healthy and sustainable food.
“Due to climate change, food prices were already at their highest in a decade, even before Russia’s barbaric invasion of Ukraine further decimated global food supplies. Now the world stands on the precipice of a global humanitarian crisis,” Shah said in a statement.
The foundation and other experts say the way the world produces and consumes food is failing people and the planet. So it has devised a new strategy that it hopes will shift the focus from increasing the quantity of food to improving its quality.
Rockefeller aims not only to increase access to affordable and healthy food, but also to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the food system and expand opportunities for small food production companies.
The foundation has some innovative approaches to achieve these goals. Planned are for example:
— Encourage doctors to prescribe fruits and vegetables instead of medicines when appropriate, as these can be both healthier and cheaper. Ten health insurance companies are working with Rockefeller to test the idea.
— Pay for healthy food in schools, hospitals, prisons and other government institutions.
— Helping farmers switch their production practices to approaches that reduce the release of carbon into the air after plowing the soil.
— Fund more small and medium-sized food companies to diversify retailers and avoid supply chain problems.
The announcement builds on one of philanthropy’s most successful efforts, the Green Revolution of the 1960s.
Rockefeller funded the technology that helped power food production to avert hunger in the world’s poorest countries. However, there was a lack of sustainability and justice. That’s what today’s effort aims to address, officials at the foundation say.
Barron Segar, President of World Food Program USA, agrees that something needs to be done now. Rockefeller gave $3.3 million to the program in 2021 to provide nutritious foods for school feeding programs in Africa.
“We are facing the greatest crisis we have ever faced in terms of food insecurity,” Segar said. “There are 811 million people today who don’t have access to quality food and don’t know where their next meal will come from. We are at a very pivotal moment in history where 45 million people are marching to starvation.”
Last year, Rockefeller released a report to assess all of the impacts of food systems in the United States on health, the environment, biodiversity and livelihoods. It turns out that in 2019, Americans paid an estimated $1.1 trillion in food manufacturing, processing, retail and wholesale costs. However, if other costs, such as the impact of the food system on climate change, were included, the cost would amount to US$3.2 trillion per year.
One of Rockefeller’s grantees implemented some of the ideas that are part of the Good Food strategy.
FoodCorps, which received at least $500,000 from the foundation last year for its work providing healthy food for schoolchildren, has already had some success in influencing food policy.
In California, FoodCorps lobbied for passage of the Free School Meals Act last year. And in Connecticut, the nonprofit helped the state make its first farm-to-school grant program a reality, which will bring more local foods into school lunches, provide educators with more resources to teach students about nutrition, and build relationships with local farmers and producers.
Rockefeller is also working with Kaiser Permanente, a healthcare company, on its Food as Medicine program. A total investment of more than $2 million will flow into three research studies evaluating healthy food prescribing programs for participants who have or are at risk of diet-related diseases. Both groups are also accumulating evidence that prescription products are healthier and cheaper than traditional drugs in some cases.
“Everyone needs and deserves access to healthy food that they can afford,” said Pamela Schwartz, executive director at Kaiser.
Another element of the Rockefeller plan is to focus on changing the composition of food producers.
Roy Steiner, senior vice president of Rockefeller’s food grants work, said the pandemic has shown how fragile supply chains are. And it doesn’t help that only a few major grocers monopolize the industry, he says. Diversifying power and wealth in the food industry is healthier for the economy, he said, which is why part of the Good Food strategy is to prioritize small and medium-sized food companies.
“There has to be a variety of crops that can be grown by a variety of farmers,” Steiner said. “That’s why you have multiple players and multiple sources of supply when things break down.”
The pandemic is not the only crisis that has exacerbated hunger. Climate change and the conflicts in Ethiopia, Yemen and Ukraine also contributed to this, says Steiner.
“We wouldn’t be in a crisis like this if we had more regenerative and distributed systems,” he said.
Segar, who visited the Ukraine-Polish border last weekend, said the World Food Program is pushing to feed 3.1 million people in Ukraine. Food and drinking water shortages are reported from Kyiv and Kharkiv, two cities bearing the brunt of the war. But the resources of the World Food Program are beginning to dwindle.
Segar said the Rockefeller Foundation has an original approach to improving food production and his organization is working to adopt it. The foundation not only gives money, he said, but educates the public about food and uses data and research to make decisions. He referred to Rockefeller’s “True Cost of Food” report, which analyzes the impact of food on people and the planet. Segar also cites Rockefeller’s periodic table of foods, an attempt to create a database that breaks down the composition of foods.
Segar said his organization can use what it learned from Rockefeller and educate communities in Central America about healthy meals.
Segar said the World Food Program and Rockefeller both wanted to create a food system that everyone could afford and access.
“The right diet at the right time can save lives,” Segar said.
Food crisis due to Ukraine war calls for demand side action: less animal products, less waste and green farming
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