From the republic of hunger to the land of plenty

With world grain production in jeopardy and rising food prices, countries need to bolster their food security.

A bomb explosion kills at least 6 in Mogadishu, Somalia
Public distribution of food rations appears to have become a permanent feature of economies around the world [EPA]

I have spent much of this year examining public food distribution systems and how they work in Iraq, Egypt and India. Now it seems appropriate to ask what, if anything, we can conclude from the experiences of these and other countries about the quest for food security.

In their mechanics, those three national food systems have much in common – not only with one another but with public food systems in wealthier countries as well. And, it seems, almost anywhere you look these days, food systems are getting caught up in tugs-of-war between groups of policymakers who have very different ideas on the meaning of food security.

Here are a few things we can learn from public food distribution systems in India, Egypt and Iraq. And they’re relevant in a range of other countries, rich and poor, as well:

  • Public stockpiling and distribution of food can be a response to production failures or a cutoff of imports, as has happened at times in Iraq and Cuba. However, subsidised food rations are more commonly designed to prevent hunger among low-income families, stabilise domestic food prices, and buffer household food supplies against the world’s always chaotic agricultural economy.
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    Attempts to “target” food distribution only at the poor run the risk of introducing unfairness, because the process of excluding ineligible recipients always catches eligible people in the net as well. Recognising this, Egypt has decided against purging its rolls and is focusing only on reaching all eligible families.

  • Any means-tested food distribution takes on the aspect of a handout to the vulnerable and creates a two-tier system. Especially in countries with a poor majority, a universal system can maintain far greater support among both voters and policymakers. When rules apply equally to everyone, even the most powerful, they are more politically robust.
  • Surveys of domestic food-security programmes worldwide have concluded that in countries where even well-off citizens are eligible to buy subsidised food, poor families are much more food-secure than they would have been without the public food system.
  • No public food distribution system seems to be functioning as well as it should. Counterfeiting ration cards and diverting food into illicit markets are common in just about every system. But despite such problems, and even with impressive increases in food production over the past half-century, many millions of the world’s people have escaped hunger only because of public food support.
  • In country after country, economists and international lenders have proposed that in-kind food distribution be abandoned in favour of food coupons or of straight cash that can be spent on either food or non-food products. But at the ground level, there are concerns that inflation will eat away at any benefit if its value is expressed in money rather than as a fixed quantity of food. In particular, polls show huge majorities opposed to straight cash benefits.
  • Governments sometimes turn to their food distribution programmes when they are trying to defuse public protest against economic and political conditions while avoiding real economic reform. The most prominent recent examples of this were seen across the Arab world in the winter and spring of 2011, but it has long been a routine practice in many countries.
  • Finally, experience shows that a globalised economy and rapid economic growth do not automatically ensure good nutrition for all; the issues of inequality and hunger must be addressed specifically.

Missing meals in the land of plenty

That last point about the ineffectiveness of growth has been well illustrated in India – where for two decades the globalised  “India Shining” has also remained the “Republic of Hunger” – and in Egypt, a growth-friendly “top reformer” in recent years (according to the World Bank) but plagued by poverty and heavily dependent on food subsidies both before and after the 2011 revolution.

Or consider China, where the greatest strides in cutting rates of hunger, mortality and illness came before economic growth took off in the late 1980s and accelerated a decade later. After the food ration system was terminated in the late 1990s, undernourishment among children once again emerged as a symptom of poverty.

The proportion of the world’s people living on less than one dollar a day fell steeply from 1970 until the late 1980s (largely preceding the surge of growth that has swept the economies of China, India, Thailand, Brazil, and many other countries) and has decreased more slowly since then. Yet, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, there are more undernourished people in the world today than there were in 1970.  

Access to food has even become less secure in, of all places, the United States. It seems strange that public food distribution should be necessary in a country where the total quantity of food available is almost twice what is needed to meet the population’s daily requirement for calories and protein. But for many years, the government has indeed found it necessary to supply food to people who otherwise could not afford it.

The Department of Agriculture (USDA) distributes huge volumes of food directly, in kind: canned fruits and vegetables, fruit juice, dried egg mix, meat, dry beans, pasta, peanut butter, rice, grits, cereal, and other foods. But a far larger quantity of food assistance comes in the form of a little plastic card – the latest incarnation of the food-stamp programme, which is now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programme – or SNAP.

Recipients use the SNAP card to buy a specified dollar amount of food (averaging about $135 per person per month) in supermarkets or other stores. If the government of India, Egypt or Iraq decides to liquidate its food-distribution system in favour of food stamps or smart cards, its citizens will join almost 50 million in the US – a population that would rank at number 25 on the list of the world’s largest nations – who buy food through such a system.

Food stamps got their start under President Lyndon Johnson’s ambitious anti-poverty campaign of the 1960s. But in the years since, food assistance has never been very popular with occupants of the White House, whatever their party. The programme was cut deeply in the 1980s under Republican Ronald Reagan and again in 1996 under Democrat Bill Clinton. To authorise the reinvigorated SNAP programme in 2008, Congress had to override a veto by George W Bush.

The number of people getting help from nonprofit food banks and soup kitchens reached 37 million in 2011, having shot up by 46 per cent in just three years.

When the Great Recession hit in 2008, and a staggering one out of three in the US quickly fell into the “poor” or “near-poor” category, Congress eased SNAP’s eligibility requirements, improved benefits, and actively encouraged broader participation. Largely as a result, the number of people receiving benefits leaped by 70 per cent in just four years. Food purchases under the programme more than doubled. Suddenly, there were almost as many in the US receiving food support from their government as there were Egyptians receiving food from theirs. In 2011, presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich made a poor, and bigoted, attempt to insult President Barack Obama by calling him “the finest food-stamp president in American history”.

By spring of this year, with need for food assistance still at an all-time high, budget hawks in Congress were looking to slash food stamps once again. The Republican budget proposal authored by Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin not only would have subjected the USDA budget to deep cuts; it also would have forced SNAP recipients to shoulder the entire burden of those cuts, by reducing and denying benefits. At the same time, Ryan and company would have left fully intact all agriculture programmes that encourage overproduction – including crop support payments, which direct three-quarters of their total funds to the most affluent farms.

But those who would like to gut US food-assistance programmes inevitably hit a wall of resistance when they try to muster legislative majorities against them. Farm-state politicians know that SNAP improves farmers’ incomes by boosting domestic food demand and by helping the growing numbers of poor families who live in the rural United States. And all politicians appreciate that food programmes serve, in effect, as subsidies to big business by helping make it possible for families to survive on skimpy wages. Just as leaders in Egypt, Iraq and India look to their food-security systems for help in keeping a lid on dissent, leaders in the US depend on SNAP and other assistance programmes to relieve pressure on lawmakers and employers who might otherwise have to debate the question of a living wage for all working people.

For instance, I have calculated that without forms of federal assistance such as food stamps and the earned-income tax credit, a full-time Walmart employee earning entry-level wages could not support herself and two children, even if they subsisted entirely on the cheapest types and brands of food – and even if all food and other goods were bought at Walmart, with its “always low prices”; an employee of high-end eco-retailer Whole Foods Market would do only slightly better.

The corporate subsidy aside, USDA’s figures show SNAP to be highly successful, especially during times of economic stress. Between 2000 and 2009, food stamps reduced the severity of poverty in the United States by 13 per cent and the severity of child poverty by 21 per cent. In 2009, the newly beefed-up SNAP cut child poverty by an impressive 28 per cent as the nation languished in recession.

Free-market believers say food aid should be approached strictly as an income enhancement, because encouraging nutritional improvement is paternalistic and inefficient, restraining recipients from spending as they wish. In the United States, as in India, Egypt, Iraq and other countries, economists like to argue that food assistance programmes should be ditched completely in favour of cash benefits that can be spent not only on food but on any products the recipient chooses.

Economic theory says that families will buy the same amount of food whether the benefit is in kind (food or food coupons) or in cash; however, on-the-ground research consistently shows that when families receive a benefit that provides only for food, they consume more food than they do if they receive a cash payment of the same size.

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In country after country, food aid has been shown to have a bigger impact on nutrition than does cash aid. In the United States, the effect is dramatic: an additional dollar’s worth of food stamps increases nutrient consumption by two to ten times as much as does an additional dollar in cash. The tendency of people to ignore economic theory by consuming more food when benefits are in kind rather than in cash means that if a government wants to invest its money in food security, it should restrict those benefits to ones that provide only for food.

Still, SNAP and other federal assistance programmes, big as they are, have not completely filled the United States’ food gap. Sixty-nine per cent of people who are enrolled in a federal food programme also get help from charitable food banks. The number of people getting help from non-profit food banks and soup kitchens reached 37 million in 2011, having shot up by 46 per cent in just three years. With donations lagging, food banks across the country have had trouble keeping up,and many have been forced into rationing their stocks so that all clients can be served.

Public distribution of food rations appears to have become a permanent feature of economies, not only in India, Egypt, Iraq, and the United States, but in a broad range of countries on every continent. With world grain production in constant jeopardy, with the world’s soil and water resources degrading at alarming rates, with food prices often rising much faster than those of other goods, and with income inequality on the rise seemingly everywhere, it is easy to imagine even more countries needing domestic food-security systems in the future – easier than to imagine that public food distribution and food stamps simply fade away.

Stan Cox is a senior scientist at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, US.