Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the United Nations had set a goal of ending hunger by 2030. To reach that objective was never going to be easy: conflict, climate change, and economic downturns all threw obstacles in the path of progress. The pandemic has made the goal more elusive by creating an economic crisis, increasing food prices, and disrupting supply chains.

Since the pandemic’s onset, global hunger has reached its highest level in decades and, if left unchecked, will almost certainly exacerbate the outbreak’s death toll. Recent estimates suggest that in 2020, COVID-19 will add 83 million to 132 million people, if not more, to the rolls of those without adequate food to meet their nutritional needs. In developing countries, the number of people suffering food insecurity is expected to nearly double this year, to 265 million.

The ramifications of this problem extend beyond the immediate risks of malnutrition and obesity. Food insecurity adversely affects physical and mental health and can lead to childhood behavioral problems, poor educational attainment, and developmental issues. Children whose food supply is inadequate often wind up paying more for health care later in life and suffering disadvantages in the job market. The enormous health and social costs of food insecurity make it one of the most pressing global health problems of the twenty-first century.

A Worsening Problem

Prior to the pandemic, 2 billion people—or about one-quarter of the global population—lacked regular access to enough safe and nutritious food to grow and develop normally and to live active and healthy lives. Since the start of the pandemic, the problem has worsened. In the United States alone, food insecurity has doubled to its highest level in decades and is most acute in Black and brown populations. Food insecurity affects one in three Black and Latinx households as compared with about one in five white households. Native Americans and Alaska Natives are not regularly included in national surveys but are twice as likely as whites to be food insecure.

Among those at greatest risk from the effects of food insecurity are children. Half of all children who die before the age of five do so because of undernutrition. Prior to the pandemic, international agencies estimated that 21.3 percent of the world’s children had stunted growth, meaning that they were too short for their age; 6.9 percent were wasted, meaning that they were too thin for their height; 5.6 percent were overweight; and at least 340 million suffered from micronutrient deficiencies.

The UN made ending child malnutrition by 2030 a Sustainable Development Goal, and before COVID-19, some signs were encouraging. Stunting was on the decline, with cases decreasing by one-third between 2000 and 2019. But the pandemic threatens to reverse such progress. Wasting is expected to increase by 6.7 million children as a result of COVID-19—a change that would raise global wasting to its highest level this millennium.

Since the pandemic’s onset, global hunger has reached its highest level in decades.

Food insecurity often coexists with obesity, the prevalence of which has doubled in 73 countries since 1980 and steadily increased in many others. More than 2 billion people globally are now overweight or obese—a trajectory that suggests that the World Health Organization’s goal of halting the rise in adult obesity by 2025 is likely unrealistic. In fact, if current trends continue, by 2025 adult obesity will have increased by 40 percent compared with 2012. Given the negative association between COVID-19 and obesity, the need to address food insecurity and all its ramifications is particularly urgent.

The world produces more than enough food to feed everyone—and yet hunger and malnutrition remain dire problems. Even without a pandemic, political and systemic conditions can produce and sustain scarcity. Weather extremes are one such condition. Heat waves, heavy downpours, and earthquakes are increasing in frequency, and they can make crops more vulnerable to infection, pest infestation, and choking weeds. Extreme weather can also delay crop plantings, which can in turn reduce the overall food supply.

Why Hunger?

Conflict, too, drives hunger. In fact, mass starvation accompanies most contemporary wars, and in some cases, hunger becomes a deliberately wielded weapon, as when a belligerent destroys farms or livestock. About 60 percent of the world’s chronically food-insecure people live in countries riven by conflict. For children, the number is as high as 75 percent. Refugees displaced by war are especially vulnerable to food insecurity. Poor nutrition can weaken the immune system and put refugees, particularly those living in crowded camps, at higher risk of COVID-19. Prolonged conflicts can also disrupt food supplies, causing food prices to fluctuate and sometimes spike.

Even outside conflict zones, global food prices have been rising. COVID-19 has exacerbated this trend. Food prices rose for four straight months, from June to September, in 2020. This past April, U.S. grocery prices had their sharpest increase in 50 years. Rising food prices hit low- and middle-income countries the hardest, because their residents spend a greater proportion of their income on food than do those in high-income countries. When prices are high and incomes are low, people often wind up reducing the quantity or quality of food they consume, because healthy diets tend to be about five times as expensive as unhealthy ones. But low-quality diets can have costly consequences of their own: global health expenditures on diet-related conditions that lead to death and disease are projected to exceed $1.3 trillion per year by 2030.

COVID-19 has forced such choices on many households in 2020. The pandemic dramatically slowed the global economy and constricted the job market. In the second quarter of 2020, 400 million people lost full-time jobs globally. A second wave of the pandemic in the third and fourth quarters of 2020 will likely eliminate 340 million full-time jobs. The pandemic is expected to push more than half a billion people into poverty. With poverty comes food insecurity, and with food insecurity come worse health outcomes during an already precarious time.

Lawmakers Must Act

Food insecurity is preventable. Policymakers around the world must act to prevent food insecurity from making the COVID-19 pandemic even more devastating than it already has been. The policies that can best address hunger, malnutrition, and obesity are some of the same ones that will also shore up economies and help address systemic inequities—lawmakers just have to understand their urgency and take action.

Governments need to stimulate their economies so that people can buy food and businesses can obtain financial relief. In just the first two months of the pandemic, governments spent a total of $10 trillion on stimulus, which is three times as much as they spent during the 2008–9 financial crisis—but they need to do more, especially as infections surge. To date, the United States has spent the most, committing the equivalent of about 13 percent of GDP. Most other countries have spent less than the United States has as a proportion of GDP. They all need to do more to reach their most vulnerable citizens.

Once governments commit to providing financial relief, they must deliver it efficiently to the people who need it. According to one report, some high-risk populations receive income support in as little as one day while others can be left waiting for more than two months. People who lose their jobs are often unable to claim unemployment insurance, as has been widely reported in the United States. Some countries have experimented with quick-acting and innovative delivery mechanisms that have proved to be efficient. Malaysia offered hotels, travel agencies, airlines, shopping malls, conventions, and exhibition centers a 15 percent discount on monthly electricity bills. In Kenya, an online platform used geographical data to get digital cash transfers to vulnerable people in low-income groups.

The world needs a dramatic, coordinated effort to address food insecurity.

The United States has such a mechanism, if it will only commit to using it. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program rapidly delivers funds to income-eligible Americans so that they can afford food. In doing so, the program also helps boost the economy. About 43 million people—or one in eight Americans—participate in SNAP, with a monthly benefit per person of $136, which averages to about $1.40 per meal. The latest proposed stimulus bill temporarily increases the SNAP benefit by 15 percent, equivalent to about $100 for a family of four each month. The United States adopted just such a temporary increase in response to the Great Recession. Doing so today would significantly reduce food insecurity, especially for households with children. But the bill appears to be on hold at least until after the presidential election: the House of Representatives has passed it twice, but the Senate and the White House have stalled it.

Safely reopening schools and childcare centers the world over is vital to food security, in part because schools provide meals to children who need them and in part because caregivers are better able to work when their own children are in school or otherwise cared for. Moreover, schools help prevent obesity, because children in structured environments are less likely to fall into unhealthy behaviors that promote weight gain. The situation of most children since mid-March 2020 has been unstructured and summer-like, with consequences that have been concerning, particularly among populations already experiencing health disparities. Policymakers will need to focus on more comprehensive, long-term initiatives to foster children’s health where they live, learn, and play.

The success of all these efforts requires that food itself be available and affordable. The pandemic has introduced difficulties in this regard, as restrictions on movement within and across countries have disrupted supply chains. Together, the Food and Agriculture Organization, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, the World Food Program, and the World Bank are calling for collective action to ensure that the food supply chain functions well during the pandemic and provides safe and nutritious food to all. Specifically, they argue that agriculture and its food logistic services are essential and that efforts should focus on ensuring access for the poor and those most in need.

Hunger Is Preventable

COVID-19 is affecting many dimensions of global life at once. Recovery will require balancing and sequencing policies among all of them—fiscal, agricultural, educational, and health related. Many countries have directed extraordinary resources at combating the pandemic—but the coffers are not bottomless, and low- and middle-income countries may have little more to give. The focus should therefore be on sustainable, scalable, and equitable policies that reduce hunger and help those who the pandemic has most adversely affected.

Efforts to redress food insecurity must not stigmatize the people who receive assistance. Rather, policymakers should promote equal access to food—drawing on the best available science and working to rigorously evaluate what does and does not work.

To date, COVID-19 has killed more than a million people worldwide and helped produce a profound global hunger crisis. The world needs a dramatic, coordinated effort to address food insecurity. Without one, it will not likely achieve the Sustainable Development Goals for 2030. Worse, it will witness death and disease on an unimaginable scale, especially among its poorest, who also experience the most hunger and diet-related disease. The good news is that hunger is preventable. But only if those who can act, do—together.

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  • SARA BLEICH is Professor of Public Health Policy at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health.
  • SHEILA FLEISCHHACKER is Adjunct Professor of Law at Georgetown University Law Center.