Food Insecurity Crises at Home and Abroad: Why Biden Must Lead on Both

This commentary is part of CSIS's Global Forecast 2021 essay series.

When the Covid-19 pandemic ultimately subsides, one of the lasting images of the pandemic in the United States will be a food bank with customers queued for blocks or cars lined up for miles. The culprit is not lack of food but the economic downturn that spread as quickly as the virus: our food insecurity problem is an income problem, not a food problem. To predict increases in food insecurity because of Covid-19, Feeding America used estimates of unemployment and poverty, concluding that, in 2020, 15.6 percent of Americans could have been food insecure. If this proves true, it would indicate the highest number of food-insecure individuals, and the greatest annual increase in food insecurity, in over twenty years—including the Great Recession.

Likewise, the pandemic-driven economic downturn is to blame for food insecurity worldwide. The UN World Food Programme (WFP) looked at job, wage, and remittance losses to predict increases in hunger globally, concluding that the pandemic could push 270 million into acute food insecurity in 2020, an 80 percent increase over 2019. If these forecasts bear out, the coronavirus pandemic will have caused the most severe global food security crisis in recent history, deeper than the global food-price crisis of 2007-2008 and accompanied by the worst levels of domestic food insecurity in decades. How the Biden administration responds to each will affect food security—and the U.S. reputation as a global leader—for decades to come.

Aiming for Zero Hunger at Home

The omnibus relief deal passed by Congress in December 2020 provides comprehensive support for food security programming, temporarily increasing the maximum Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefit, expanding programs that improve nutrition for children and the elderly, and supporting online food delivery services for those using federal benefits. Congressional action gained praise from anti-hunger advocates and lays the foundation for wider-ranging support under the Biden administration.

But the U.S. government has long tolerated unnecessarily high levels of food insecurity within its borders: over the past 20 years, the proportion of people living in food-insecure households has rarely fallen below 10 percent. Will the Biden administration build on Congress’s recent efforts and settle for pre-Covid-19 levels of hunger, or will it aim for zero? Doing the latter would ultimately require reforms that increase incomes and wealth alongside improvements in health care, education, and infrastructure for all Americans. It would also require efforts to target those hardest hit by food insecurity, including women, veterans, and Black, Latino, and Native Americans.

“Our reputation as a global leader on food security has been tarnished. If we intend to lead on food security abroad, we must look inward as well.”

Eliminating domestic food insecurity is a challenge that no one department or agency alone is positioned to execute. The Biden administration should therefore appoint a high-level official within the Domestic Policy Council charged with coordinating activities across departments—the Departments of Agriculture, Education, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Labor, Transportation, and Veterans Affairs, among others—and tracking progress on food security among all Americans. And President Biden should make good on his pledge to raise the federal minimum wage, since no real progress will happen until incomes increase.

In May, a journalist based in South Asia—seeing the same images of food banks that shocked Americans—asked me, “Can you explain what’s happening? We never thought this was possible in your country.” Like our failed efforts to contain the pandemic and recent threats to our democracy, the world is watching. Our reputation as a global leader on food security has been tarnished. If we intend to lead on food security abroad, we must look inward as well.

The Deepest Global Food Crisis in Decades?

U.S. global anti-hunger efforts have historically enjoyed bipartisan support, but the Trump administration was ambivalent at best about global food insecurity, proposing cuts to the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Feed the Future program and U.S. contributions to WFP, and deemphasizing food security as a development priority. Congress ultimately reinstated funding for Feed the Future and nearly doubled U.S. contributions to WFP. U.S. programming continued despite a retreat from global leadership.

Since the pre-Trump era, when the United States positioned itself as a leader on global food security, developing countries’ demographics have changed, and so have geopolitics. This calls for a reboot to U.S. food security programming. The good news is the “good bones” of the Global Food Security Act and Feed the Future program, which provide a solid legislative and bureaucratic infrastructure for global food security assistance. The bad news is that our current agriculture-based model of assistance has not borne the results intended. Global food insecurity has increased every year since 2014, including in nearly every Feed the Future target country, and even the cheapest form of a healthy diet remains out of reach for 3 billion people worldwide. The difficult task will be redirecting the foreign assistance ship to address today’s challenges with renewed and enlightened leadership from Congress.

A modern agenda for global food security must recognize that improving agriculture and helping food-insecure people are no longer necessarily one and the same. The United Nations predicts that the world’s rural population will peak in 2021 and then begin to decline, with all population growth through 2050 happening in cities. Our task is therefore twofold: to improve agriculture in rural areas and to improve food security in cities. Biden has already rejoined the Paris Agreement, ushering in a renewed focus on climate change. However, any effort to address climate change would be incomplete unless it encompasses food systems as part of the solution, helping these systems mitigate and adapt to climate change. The Biden administration should finally recognize that U.S. goals for water security and food security are interconnected, and it should fund programs that help achieve these dual goals at the same time. The United States should also encourage greater investments in fruits and vegetables; decades of underinvestment have led to high prices and low levels of nutrition around the world. Last, improving food security where people are and where they will be—in cities—requires an entire rethink of long-term food security programming. This begins with designating food-insecure urban populations as direct beneficiaries of U.S. investments, to include improving food safety in low-income urban areas, increasing access to nutritious foods, extending social safety nets to cities, and demanding up-to-date demographical data to inform our investments.

The most important tools of food-security assistance are the Global Food Security Act, which effectively signed USAID’s Feed the Future program into law, and the Global Food Security Strategy, which informs the direction of Feed the Future. The interagency is preparing to redraft the current Global Food Security Strategy, which expires in 2021. Under the Biden administration, the strategy should reflect the developing world as it is—afflicted by Covid-19, climate change, and conflict, with populations urbanizing and governments turning to China’s model of assistance—in order to make the best use of U.S. development dollars. With the Global Food Security Act set to expire in 2023, Congress should likewise update the act to reflect today’s challenges to global food security. Equally important is how we implement these policies: interagency cooperation has not lived up to its promise, and the president will have the option of designating new leadership—at the White House or State Department—to effectively coordinate the efforts of departments and agencies concerned with global food security.

An Extension of American Values

When it comes to domestic and global food security, the administration must answer to a deeply divided electorate. For the United States to take up the mantle on food security at home and abroad, the incoming administration must do a better job articulating how our investments are a direct extension of American values. At home, food security has long been linked to our country’s well-being: Congress established the National School Lunch Program after observing that many World War II recruits had been rejected for poor nutrition, describing the program “as a measure of national security, to safeguard the health and well-being of our nation’s children.” Improving food security among Americans would have follow-on benefits for education and health, particularly during the pandemic, when a person’s nutrition and health status influences their likelihood to fall ill or die from Covid-19. Better nutrition also improves education outcomes, ultimately preparing the U.S. public to participate in the global economy.

Investing in food security abroad also brings benefits for the U.S. economy: nearly all global population growth over the next 30 years is expected to happen in developing countries, potentially enormous markets for U.S. exports. Improving food security can also be part of comprehensive efforts to stabilize fragile and conflict-affected areas, where instability can have very real consequences for the United States. Reclaiming global leadership is critical to countering China’s influence and expanding our own in developing countries; China is extending its Belt and Road Initiative, and while the United States retreated from multilateralism, China has taken leadership positions in four major UN agencies, including the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

“Given the relationship between food security at home and abroad, and the importance of repairing U.S. reputation as a global leader, Congress should marshal bipartisan support for domestic hunger relief alongside our global food security programming.”

At the end of December, the Census Bureau observed the highest rates of household food insecurity of any point since the pandemic hit. Essential to long-lasting change on domestic food insecurity is bipartisan support for the cause. Global food security has long enjoyed backing from both Democrat and Republican leadership, as demonstrated by Senator Jim Risch (R-ID) and Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) in their recent essays in CSIS’s Reset the Table series. Given the relationship between food security at home and abroad, and the importance of repairing U.S. reputation as a global leader, Congress should marshal bipartisan support for domestic hunger relief alongside our global food security programming.

There is no modern precedent for a food insecurity crisis that plagues the developing world and the United States at the same time. The Biden administration faces both. Rather than conceptualizing these problems as “either/or,” the administration should recognize that it is in the national interest to double down on investments in both domestic and global food security. These efforts can be mutually reinforcing—and on food insecurity, like other ills, our ability to lead globally hinges on our ability to address challenges at home.

Caitlin Welsh is the director of the Global Food Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2021 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Caitlin Welsh
Director, Global Food and Water Security Program