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COVID-19 Leaves Millions Hungry Around The World, With Women Disproportionately Affected

A volunteer prepares to load food into a car at a mobile pantry April 14, 2020 in Detroit, Michigan. The organization distributes food throughout the metro area, which has seen an uptick in demand due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
A volunteer prepares to load food into a car at a mobile pantry April 14, 2020 in Detroit, Michigan. The organization distributes food throughout the metro area, which has seen an uptick in demand due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

The number of people undernourished or chronically hungry worldwide could rise from 690 million to 820 million because of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new report from the humanitarian group CARE.

Data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau in late July reveals that 29 million adults say their household sometimes or often didn’t have enough to eatin the proceeding seven days. The burden of hunger, CARE says, falls disproportionately on girls and women.

“It’s become both a result of losing income and not being able to afford food — but also not being able to access food as people have not been able to get out to markets on a regular basis to purchase the food that they need,” says Tonya Rawe, CARE’s director of global food and nutrition security advocacy.

Food insecurity is a global challenge, Rawe says. In West and Central Africa, the number of people facing starvation has more than doubled, according to the report, with food shortages having gone up 90% in South Africa.

In the U.S., 6 million Americans became eligible for food stamps since the early months of the pandemic, according to the Washington Post. Stretching food safety nets to meet the increased need poses a challenge for countries because of how fast the numbers are rising, she says.

With less income and access to buy food for their families, women face additional challenges. Losing income or school nutrition programs that children rely on increases the caregiving burden, she says.

The inequality in food systems that women faced before COVID-19 is now exacerbated. As the primary food providers for their families, women are responsible for as much up to 90% of food preparation in households and often handle grocery shopping, according to the report.

“But we also see that women often eat last and they eat least when there’s a crisis,” she says. “And now that we’re looking at the COVID-19 pandemic, that preexisting inequality is just being exacerbated.”

Women also represent half or more of agriculture laborersin developing countries such as Chile, Kenya and South Africa, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reports.

Some well-meaning policies to stop the spread of COVID-19 impact women more than men, Rawe says. For example, in Mali, a mandated curfew restricts access to fields during the hours that women work but not men, according to the report.

The issue of global food insecurity predates the coronavirus: The number of people who are severely food insecure around the world has risen nearly 70% in the last four years, the report finds.

More people are recognizing that food systems are broken because of pressure from folks lacking access to enough nutritious food, climate change and expanding income inequality, she says. 

The impact of COVID-19 on food systems will elongate the hunger crisis, Rawe says. Some families in Nepal have resorted to eating next season’s seeds — which means they won’t have a harvest, the report finds. 

As people across the globe look toward recovery from the economic impacts of the pandemic, policymakers must make gender a key part of the conversation, Rawe says.

“This really is where we can begin to look at what isn’t working in food systems and begin to fix it now,” she says.


Karyn Miller-Medzon produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku RayAllison Hagan adapted it for the web. 

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.