Aid more than filling bellies

Quality over quantity | Poor need proper food to fight malnutrition

International food and health specialist Rachel Nugent says it is time for food donor countries and food aid agencies to rethink their food aid priorities.

Instead of focusing on getting adequate quantities of food to hungry people or food-deficient regions, the emphasis should be on the quality of food supplied, she said in a late January interview from her University of Washington office.

“I think it is a very important moment that we’re at right now because it is clear that the nature of hunger has changed,” she said after an Ottawa speech sponsored by the International Development Research Council.

“It’s not quantity but quality that is needed. Organizations that are doing good work in that area have to change in accordance with the need.”

Nugent said malnutrition in poor developing countries is not just a question of a lack of food, which usually is the focus of food aid efforts. It is whether the food supplied is appropriate.

Diseases like hypertension, heart ailments and strokes, which were once considered a developed world condition because of processed foods, stress, obesity and lack of exercise, are now prevalent in developing countries, said Nugent.

“We know well in developed countries that we don’t want people to have more food,” she said.

“We want them to have a high quality diet but we lose that point when we look at poor countries and we see they need food, so we just want to deliver food to them and we lose the idea that quality is important. We concentrate on getting their bellies full and that takes care of it, but it is more and more true that quality has to be prioritized because even poor people have access to empty calories and that is not what they need.”

Nugent said farmers who support food aid agencies such as the Canadian Foodgrains Bank are well placed to argue for a change in food aid priorities from quantity to quality.

“Groups with a long-term commitment, farmer support and credibility are the ones that can help turn this around,” she said.

“Farmers have a lot of political influence and there are politicians interested in bringing health into the food aid discussion and I think farmers could be very, very important in that discussion. They have a lot of knowledge about how to supply high quality food.”

Nugent’s criticisms come at a time when there are growing questions about the efficiency of the current system, whatever its priorities.

Rich donor countries and food aid agencies face accusations that a slow response to last year’s Horn of Africa crisis led to thousands of unnecessary deaths, despite warnings a year before that drought and war would create hundreds of thousands of hungry and displaced refugees.

Last week, the foodgrains bank issued a statement acknowledging that despite millions of dollars of help, its response to the 2011 Horn of Africa humanitarian disaster was inadequate.

“We all knew that a crisis was looming a year before it happened,” international programs director Grant Hillier said. “We geared up as fast as we could, but I wish it could have been quicker.”

The foodgrains bank said it is “exploring ways to respond more quickly the next time a disaster looms.”

However, Nugent said that the food aid emphasis should switch from the idea that there is enough food in the world for all if the system simply made it available to a recognition that sending bulk surplus food, as the United States tends to do as a surplus removal program, is not the answer.

“They (developing country citizens) may be eating enough calories but they are not getting enough diversity and micro-nutrients that will allow their brain to develop as well as their body,” she said. “A full belly is not enough.”

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