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Six Ways to Help Mitigate Global Hunger During the COVID-19 Pandemic and Future Crises

Harvard research highlights policies for advancing food donation as a solution to food loss, waste, and unprecedented hunger during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. 

A new issue brief released by Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic (FLPC) and The Global FoodBanking Network (GFN) outlines clear and feasible policy opportunities for governments to address rising rates of food insecurity by better supporting food banks and food recovery organizations.

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, about one in three people in the world, or 720 to 811 million people, experienced hunger in 2020. The need for food assistance is at a historic high, unlikely to abate soon and — given global trends like accelerating climate change — will surely continue to be a critical issue. Millions of people remain at risk as COVID-19 continues to spread in global hotspots, and economic recovery sputters.

The new brief released by FLPC and GFN builds on previous research showing that food banks and food recovery organizations emerged as their own class of first responders during the pandemic. Amid turmoil in food systems — destabilized markets, bottlenecks, rising prices, waste — they provided immediate relief to meet surging food needs, helped redirect wholesome, surplus food that would otherwise be wasted, and minimized the environmental and economic costs in the short and long term.

The brief, titled Strengthening Food Donation Operations During COVID-19: Key Issues and Best Practices for Governments Around the Globe and released as part of The Global Food Donation Policy Atlas project, identifies innovative policies that governments can adopt to strengthen food donation operations. The authors illustrate how government support will ensure that food banks and food recovery organizations can continue to provide food assistance today and position these entities as vital partners to prevent hunger in the future. The brief identifies six best practices for governments: 

  1. Formally recognize food recovery organizations as essential partners in governmental response to food insecurity, such as through tailored legislation or national food strategies.
  2. Engage in public-private partnerships that include food banks, food recovery organizations, and other food system actors to promote food recovery and donation during emergencies.
  3. Expand the capacity of regional, state, and municipal governments to support food banks and food recovery organizations.
  4. Deploy food banks and food recovery organizations as distribution centers for food assistance, including school meals for children still affected by pandemic-related school closures.
  5. Provide additional resources to food banks and food recovery organizations to support direct food purchasing and procurement.
  6. Create exceptions to emergency response measures (e.g., lockdowns, curfews, and state-at-home orders) to ensure that food donation and distribution continue uninterrupted.

“Despite disruptions caused by the pandemic, the food system produced enough food to feed the dramatic surge of people experiencing hunger,” observed Emily Broad Leib, clinical professor of law at Harvard Law School and director of the Food Law and Policy Clinic. “Food banks and food recovery organizations transitioned into first responders to meet immediate needs, yet in many cases demand exceeded their capacity. Our issue brief identifies successful strategies for governments to optimize the ability of these organizations to feed hungry people for the duration of the pandemic and mobilize them to address food insecurity needs into the future.

“In 2020, GFN member food banks served 40 million people, a 132 percent increase over the previous year, partly due to the COVID-19 crisis and resulting economic instability,” said Lisa Moon, president and CEO of The Global FoodBanking Network. “During a time of intense need and new challenges, food banks have proven to be an effective, community-based resource for hunger alleviation. We’re proud to partner in this crucial research that provides governments with the concrete steps necessary to support greater food security and sustainability.

Government action that integrates food banks and food recovery organizations into humanitarian relief efforts can help accelerate post-pandemic recovery, build food system resilience that forestalls future hunger crises, and contribute to greater food efficiency, equity, and sustainability.

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