Emergency food aid: A hindrance to achieving community food security in Ciudad Colon?
Author: Lauren Bernardi
According to Banco de Alimentos de Mora founder, Carlos, there are approximately 400 food insecure individuals that reside in Ciudad Colon. Of this population, he estimates that about 90% of these individuals are elderly folks who are not working and may not have family members living near enough to support them (C. Calderon, personal communication, February 7, 2023). Of the approx. 17,000 people that live in Ciudad Colon (City Population, 2020), this is about a 2.5% food insecure rate. According to Hamm & Bellows,
“Food insecurity is experienced most poignantly and addressed most innovatively at the community level, where a small, but hopefully increasing, amount of national funding facilitates CFS [Community Food Security] efforts” (2003, pg.37).
Using the CFS model, my fellow colleagues and I set out to understand what types of community organizations, innovation, and education exist in Ciudad Colon to address food insecurity and perhaps enhance food sovereignty among it’s residents. We were curious to know if these efforts were, in fact, born at a community level as highlighted in the CFS framework, or if local food security initiatives are being funded by national food aid programs, for example through regional affiliates of the Costa Rican food bank.
After completing an initial online search and reaching out to community members, we curated a list of potential interviewees. While not successful in connecting with each individual or organization on the list, we were able to contact several in Ciudad Colon such as Banco de Alimentos de Mora, Trueque Humanitario, and Comedor los Niños de Dios.
The information we collected had one underlying theme: each organization was created by passionate community members who saw a need in their community, specifically as a response to COVID-19. Furthermore, these organizations are not, to our knowledge, affiliated or funded by the national Costa Rican food bank, government, or other national funding programs. In this critical reflection, I will explore how COVID-19 has changed our food environment and the role emergency food aid, such as food bank services, has in achieving food security based on literature and observations from our research.
COVID-19: An opportunity to restructure our food system?
Globally, the FAO projects that an additional 83 to 132 million people would be added to the pre-existing 690 million undernourished people in 2020 due to the pandemic (FAO, et al., 2020). Clapp & Moseley speculate that
“Even though global food stocks are at record high levels, and food prices on world markets fell in the early months of the pandemic, many people have had to scale back their food intake because of their loss of income, and a growing number of people are facing food insecurity” (2020, pg. 1404).
From these statistics it is easy to conclude that our food system is fragile and creates immediate inequitable food access for the most vulnerable demographics. As Carlos from the Food Bank in Mora saw a rise in food insecurity with elders, so did Comedor los Niños de Dios, who reported that the demand for their hot meal service increased during the pandemic to serve many women with children in addition to elderly folks (Comedor los Niños de Dios, personal communication, February 13, 2023).
According to one study conducted in the U.S. during the pandemic, households with an annual income of between $30,000-$75,000 (considered “lower-income” according to the study) with children under the age of 18 were most likely to be experiencing food insecurity (Parekh, et al., 2021).
Another study conducted in the UK during the same time reported that single parents were the most likely to be food insecure (Brown, et al., 2022). In countries of the Global South, extreme hunger was made ever-more rampant during the pandemic, with poor populations in Zimbabwe, the Philippines and within the Rohingya refugees in India reporting “we risk dying from hunger before we die from COVID-19” (Zurayak, 2020, pg. 20).
Bearing these few examples in mind, was COVID-19 an opportunity for us to reimagine the way our food systems are structured? According to Zurayak, we have a moral responsibility around the world to do so: “it is up to us all, in the North and in the South, to make the New World a better one. Transforming the food system is a good place to start” (2020, pg.20).
However, our small study in Ciudad Colon may imply that society has, and will continue, to accept the way our current system is structured. For example, Carlos at the Banco de Alimentos de Mora told us that he has reduced the amount of people he serves from approximately 150 during to 40 individuals after the pandemic, even though there is still evidently a large need. Trueque Humanitario, whilst still open to community members to trade clothing and other household items, only provided food in exchange for donated items during the pandemic.
These findings leave me with two questions: Instead of system transformation, have emergency food aid programs during the pandemic only favored anti-hunger organizations or has space been made for CFS? Do these short-term emergency programs help to create long-term solutions to food security or create more challenges in our food environment?
Is emergency food aid fueling anti-hunger?
Hamm & Bellows compare the differences between CFS and antihunger organizations, highlighting the major difference,
“Antihunger organizations traditionally responded to immediate needs in neighborhoods (e.g., with emergency food programs), whereas CFS organizations sought to build capacity at the local level (e.g., with farmers’ markets featuring locally grown foods) in response to systemic economic trauma and food insecurity” (2003, pg. 39).
Furthermore, they state that both systems are needed in order to respond to food insecurity and hunger needs in our current global food system. The most evident problem with this system is that people need to rely on these programs everyday, even when there is no emergency. Bazerghi, et al. share this same speculation,
“while food banks and other forms of food aid have traditionally been seen as a source of supplemental food and not a solution to achieving food security, there is increasing evidence to suggest that some people are coming to rely on food banks as their only source of food” (2006, pg. 3).
As a result, vulnerable populations who experience prolonged food insecurity are at the mercy of the food bank and other anti-hunger organizations. Furthermore, Bazerghi, et al. (2006) state that procuring high quality and nutritious food as well as sufficient quantities of food is a large challenge for food banks around the world. In addition to quantity and quality of food, food banks also struggle to access appropriate cultural, religious and medical food products that would properly meet the needs of clients (Rizvi, et al. 2021).
The food bank in Mora that was available for residents of Ciudad Colon over the pandemic was small-scale and run by one local community member who understood the cultural needs of his community and made a real effort to provide staples like rice, beans, spices, plantains, and fruits and vegetables when possible (see Figure 1 below). However, on a larger scale with a bigger population of those needing food aid, this is more difficult to accomplish. In this way, I do believe that the organizations that exist in Ciudad Colon did combine both models of CFS and antihunger.
When considering the users of both emergency food aid and those who rely on food aid for an extended period, I think about how these populations have no choice in what they eat on a daily basis. This is captured eloquently by Zurayak, “the food system is a symptom of the economic and political choices that are made for us, often by regimes that have little legitimacy” (2020, pg. 20).
One solution seems clear to me: our global food industry desperately needs to become more familiar with the FAO’s agroecological framework if we are to shift our mindset towards large-scale CFS models across the globe. The principles of agroecology such as responsible resource management, synergies, human and social values and efficiency to reduce use of external inputs could lead to better food security and possibly food sovereignty (FAO, 2018).
Bezner Kerr et al. suggest that within an agroecological model “increasing productivity at a household-level through improved soil, crop, and animal health may bolster food sharing networks, with social-practices of reciprocity redistributing resources within the community” (2021, pg. 2). Furthermore, their study found that the practice of agroecological techniques from various small- household to larger- farm scales can improve food security for households and communities, with a higher increase found as the complexity and diversity of the farm also increased (2021).
What does this mean for Ciudad Colon? While community members, such as Carlos from the Mora Food Bank, have exemplified immense compassion and care for their community, we could take the advice from Hamm & Bellows to advocate for more national funding to support initiatives within the CFS model. I believe this can be done through an agroecological framework by implementing spaces for community members to grow their knowledge and produce together, such as a community garden. It would also be valuable to understand what the estimated 400 food insecure individuals living in Ciudad Colon need to engage more deeply in their local food system.
List of References
Bazerghi, C., McKay, F. H., Dunn, M. (2016). The role of food banks in addressing food insecurity: a systematic review. Journal of Community Health, 1-9. http://doi 10.1007/s10900- 015-0147-5
Bezner Kerr, R. et al. (2021). Can agroecology improve food security and nutrition? A review, Global Food Security. 29. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gfs.2021.100540
Brown, H., Mills, S. & Albani, V. (2022). Socioeconomic risks of food insecurity during the Covid-19 pandemic in the UK: findings from the Understanding Society Covid Survey. BMC Public Health 22, 590. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-022-12964-w
City Population. (2020). Colon: Population. Retrieved from: https://www.citypopulation.de/en/costarica/admin/mora/10701__col%C3%B3n/
Clapp, J. & Moseley, W. G. (2020). This food crisis is different: Covid-19 and the fragility of the neoliberal food security order. The Journal of Peasant Studies, 47(7), 1393-1417
FAO (2022). The 10 elements of agroecology. Retrieved from: https://www.fao.org/agroecology/overview/overview10elements/en/
FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP and WHO. (2020). The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2020: Transforming Food Systems for Affordable Healthy Diets. Rome: FAO. https://doi.org/10.4060/ ca9692en
Hamm, M. & Bellows, A. (2003). Community food security and nutrition educators. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, 35, (1)
Parekh, N., Ali, S.H., O’Connor, J. et al. (2021). Food insecurity among households with children during the COVID-19 pandemic: results from a study among social media users across the United States. Nutr J 20, 73. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12937-021-00732-2
Rizvi, A., Wasfi, R., Enns, A. et al. (2021). The impact of novel and traditional food bank approaches on food insecurity: a longitudinal study in Ottawa, Canada. BMC Public Health 21, 771. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-021-10841-6
Zurayak, R. (2020). Pandemic and food security: A view from the Global South. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development, 9(3), 17-21
Author Short Bio
Lauren Bernardi is a fresh UPEACE alumni from the class of 2023, agriculture professional and food lover hailing from Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada. With a new Master’s in Environment, Development, and Peace, specializing in Sustainable Food Systems, and a Bachelor’s in Health Education & Environmental Studies, Lauren possesses a deep passion for sustainable food systems, environmental education, and community engagement. Throughout Lauren’s career, she has gained extensive experience in program management, field work and community development. She has grown her skills (and food) in organic and agroecological crop management, helped build community and school gardens for education and food security, developed innovative agriculture and environmental focused curriculum for youth, and completed research on environmental impacts of food system practices around the world. Lauren is currently working as an Agriculture Youth Development Specialist at the British Columbia Provincial Ministry of Agriculture, where she takes pride in planning, delivering, and evaluating sustainable agriculture-focused educational programs for youth across the province. Lauren is inspired by a vision of a future where sustainable food systems and agroecological practices are the norm. She is committed to working towards a world where everyone has access to nutritious and culturally informed meals, where ecological and financial sustainability are at the forefront of food production, and where communities are empowered to make positive changes in their food systems