EDITORIAL: Focused on food

Tomorrow is World Food Day, and across the world countries will seek to bring awareness to the plight of the two billion people who are said not to have access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food. That figure is indeed alarming, and the reality is that given the COVID-19 pandemic that the world is currently experiencing, the situation can become worse.

This year’s theme is ‘Grow, Nourish, Sustain. Together’, and it recognises that safeguarding access to safe and nutritious food is a major part of the response to the pandemic. The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) notes that while the world produces enough food, food systems are imbalanced and so, among the calls this World Food Day is for global solidarity to help all populations, in particular the most vulnerable, to recover from the crisis and create food systems that are more resilient to shocks and to deliver affordable and sustainable healthy diets for everyone.

The fact is, the various impacts of COVID-19 are still unfolding and it is hard to know which ones will be long-lasting and which could dissipate once there is a vaccine and the virus is under control. What is certain is that access to food has been a problem for many people and with what seems to be a second wave of the virus emerging, that problem is likely to increase. The lack of access to food has been due to, among other things, reduced incomes (in some cases no income) and rising food prices. The United Nations has predicted that 132 million people could go hungry in 2020 as a result of the economic recession triggered by COVID-19.

That reality is something that countries cannot afford to ignore, and do not for one minute think that persons in this country will not make up part of that global figure. Here in Barbados, at the height of the pandemic, as many as 48,000 claims were made for unemployment benefits, mostly persons working directly in tourism, and while it is unclear how many people that represented, what is sure is that thousands were out of work and the money they received from the National Insurance could not in many instances, meet the full cost of their expenses. Sacrifices no doubt had to be made and one can guess that healthy nutritious foods, which are usually more expensive, were not top of the list. So we are not only likely to see a problem with access to food, but poor nutrition will also likely be a problem.

The FAO has made it clear that every aspect of the food system has an effect on the final availability of, and accessibility to diverse, nutritious foods and by extension, on the consumer’s ability to choose healthy diets. Given that reality, governments have a major role to play in ensuring that their people have access to food first and foremost, and that they are eating healthy, nutritious meals.

Now while hunger has not traditionally been widespread in modern-day Barbados, there are members of our communities who often do not know where their next meal is coming from and those numbers could rise. As the tourism sector seeks to gradually reopen, people are getting back to work, but given the uncertainty in the market, they are not getting full remuneration, with the figures ranging from 50 to 80 per cent of what they would normally be paid. It will therefore become increasingly difficult for many persons to make ends meet and access to food will be a challenge. That will have a ripple effect on the society, for if persons cannot spend as they normally would at the supermarket or local fruit, vegetable or meat vendors, these persons too will suffer.

Efforts must be made to keep the costs down, even if that calls for the Government to subsidise the food and agricultural producers, and perhaps to a lesser extent the wholesalers and retailers. Just as they have offered a bailout of sorts for the tourism sector, they may have to consider a similar initiative for other sectors, if they are to keep the wheels of the economy turning, though admittedly at a slower pace.

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