Hunger in Central America: A Conversation Between the Alliance’s Eric Mitchell and WFP USA’s Barron Segar

Eric Mitchell is the Executive Director of the Alliance to End Hunger.

Barron Segar is President and CEO of World Food Program USA, a 501(c)(3) organization based in Washington, DC, which proudly supports the mission of the United Nations World Food Programme by mobilizing American policymakers, businesses and individuals to advance the global movement to end hunger. Its leadership and support help to bolster an enduring American legacy of feeding families in need around the world. To learn more about World Food Program USA’s mission, please visit wfpusa.org/about-us.

World Food Program USA is a founding member of the Alliance to End Hunger.

World Food Program USA President and CEO Barron Segar meets with students and beneficiaries in Jocotán, Chiquimula in Guatemala.

Eric Mitchell: The Alliance to End Hunger deals with issues of hunger and malnutrition both in the United States and around the world. As such, we recognize and are especially interested in the cross-cutting nature that hunger in Central America plays as a “push factor” for migration in addition to the pain, uncertainty, and instability it can cause in-country. It would be great to hear about the goal of your visits to Guatemala and Honduras.

Barron Segar: Central America embodies such an important part of the work we do. The number of hungry people in Central America has nearly quadrupled over two years. Today, nearly 8 million people in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua are food insecure. Among those, 1.7 million are in an emergency category of food security and need food urgently to survive. The region has faced some of the most identifiable consequences of climate change, and economic shocks and the COVID-19 pandemic have put many in extreme hunger. These unfortunate circumstances help explain why some Central Americans choose to migrate from their homes in search of hope: hope for food, hope for a job, hope for a better life.

Hope, in the same way, is key to our work. Many of the programs in countries like Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador — known as the Dry Corridor — center around resilience programs that provide people with the resources and knowledge they need to withstand shocks when they happen and build a better life for themselves in their own communities. I felt it was crucial for me to visit this region and see firsthand the effect that our programs have in lifting up communities.

When I first heard you were going on your trip my first thought was, “Wow, he’s traveling!” Everything that we all do right now is framed around COVID-19 and the global pandemic. I would be very curious to hear how the dual health-economic crises are impacting food security situations in the countries you visited.

I’ll first start by saying that I took over as President and CEO of World Food Program USA in January 2020 at the onset of the pandemic. I’ve been excited to get to the field and see how the United Nations World Food Programme is working to solve hunger and build livelihoods. My team made plans months ago to make a trip as soon as it was safe and feasible. I’ve had the good fortune of visiting the field with other organizations, so I know how important it is to see the work we’re doing on-the-ground so I can be the most effective advocate for the people we serve.

It’s important to understand that despite the situation improving in the United States, much of the developing world still faces very real obstacles with the pandemic.

In Guatemala there is typically a “hunger season” from May to September, during which farmers have exhausted their food reserves and cannot depend on their farms to provide the necessary food to sustain them and their families until the next harvest. However, with COVID-19 and then Hurricanes Eta and Iota, the 2021 “hunger season” began much earlier this year, in January. Right now, the greatest need in Guatemala is food. But that’s only effective in the short term. In the long term, communities need resources and resilience building to go beyond basic needs and provide vulnerable people with more opportunities. Our efforts there are focused on maintaining an emergency response to people suffering from the impacts of COVID-19 (job loss, etc.) while still implementing resilience building programs that help improve economic health and boost livelihoods.

Honduras is similarly going through a difficult period with the pandemic. Despite that, during my trip we visited a multi-year resilience project in Cerro Verde that has provided much opportunity for local beneficiaries, through programs like cultivating seedlings in a greenhouse, building a water storage tank to easily irrigate the land and providing technical assistance in financial accounting and rural banking which is led by a group of local women. There’s a lot of coordination within the community in managing the program as they decide together on what to grow, assist each other on their plots during harvesting season and determine where to sell their produce after dividing it up between the families.

While the current crises caused by the pandemic produce a heavy toll on hungry families around the world, the places you visited have been hit exceptionally hard by extreme weather and the effects of climate change. What did you notice on the ground related to this?

Yes, the impact of climate shocks and extreme storms was very evident. Agricultural and coastal communities in the Dry Corridor have borne the brunt of a years-long climate emergency that was exacerbated by hurricanes Eta and Iota last year. They are struggling to meet even their most basic needs. Extended dry spells plus untimely and heavy rains have disrupted food production — especially of staples like maize and beans, which depend on regular rainfall. The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season was the busiest on record with 30 significant storms. Hurricanes Eta and Iota — category 4 and 5, respectively — hit Central America two weeks apart in November, upending the lives of over 6.8 million people.

The impact of climate shocks in the countries we visited were startling. For example, in Honduras we visited its third largest city, Choloma, which following Hurricanes Eta and Iota, was severely affected by flooding, causing the destruction of homes, crops, and livelihoods. Nearly 15,000 people were evacuated, almost 35,000 people were directly affected, 39 people disappeared, and 7 people died. Some people’s homes were almost completely under water.

Much of this damage was still evident as I walked around one community in Choloma, including the remains of a family home belonging to Amal, a beneficiary I spoke with. Many houses in the area experienced flooding, and Amal’s was one of seven in the local area completely destroyed by Hurricane Eta. Amal explained that he will not be rebuilding on this property even after the barrier is built, as he is afraid something similar may happen again. He, his wife and children are currently living in a home with another family and receiving a food card with $75 a month that allows him to buy food to feed his family from the local grocery store.

Amal’s story struck a deep chord with me, and I think it’s partially up to our work to show him there’s hope and opportunity in his local community. What the region needs right now is emergency food assistance and effective rehabilitation, as many people are worried that what happened with Eta and Iota will happen again, and soon.

Getting more into the solutions side of things, I cannot imagine a lot of issues causing food insecurity in the region are going away any time soon. What do WFP’s operations in the region look like, especially as they relate to building resilience against future shocks? Related to this, can you tell us about some of the WFP beneficiaries you met and what they have experienced?

I was so heartened and impressed by the pride, strength and resolve of the beneficiaries I met. All the people I spoke with said they aspire to self-sufficiency and don’t want to rely on humanitarian aid. They just need some support so that they can get back on their feet, and our resilience programs provide that.

I mentioned one of our resilience programs already, but I also wanted to spotlight Tecuiz, Guatemala, where I met with a community resilience project that was founded in 2017 by a group of women entrepreneurs to pursue agricultural and non-agricultural trades, including aquiculture, beekeeping, and the production of cleaning products. The principals are made up entirely of women and the project emphasizes women’s empowerment. In addition to offering cash-based transfers to cover food needs while investing in the project, the U.N. World Food Programme provides technical assistance and offers planning and other administrative support.

Through the program, the women are able to bring crops, honey, farmed tilapia, and other goods to market, and the community hopes to someday export their products. This is one example of similar resilience projects in over 60 communities that assist over 250 families. In fact, one woman told us that since the women started working on the project, the economics in the home have shifted. The women now have their own money on top of what their husbands bring to the table.

All in all, I was very encouraged by the impact our resilience programs are having. A conversation I had with two young men in Cerro Verde summed it up best: as recently as six months ago, they had been considering attempting to migrate to the United States. However, the success of the farming program had provided them jobs, and now they’re staying and hopeful for the future.

Members of the Alliance to End Hunger have an increasing interest in addressing hunger issues in Central America, including through the development of an advocacy working group on the issue. As such, we would love to hear how we can support WFP’s work in the area, and issues of food insecurity in the region more broadly. Our network is heavily involved in advocacy, so policy suggestions are more than welcome as well.

U.N. World Food Programme operations require approximately $1.7 billion over 5 years to meet the needs of vulnerable people in Central America. The advocacy community must remain focused on the appropriations process and making the case for increased foreign affairs spending by the U.S. in the face of COVID-19, not a retreat from it. For Central America specifically, continuing to remind Congress of the cost saving in preventing food- and climate-related migration from the region is necessary. As I mentioned, I spoke with a number of people who, because of opportunity and investment created by the American people’s support for our programs, have made the decision to stay where they are.

Finally, it would be great to hear any last impressions or overall messages you might want to get out to our Alliance coalition, and the broader global anti-hunger community.

I left this field visit feeling inspired and hopeful. Good things are happening, and we are making a difference. I am encouraged by the great work happening by all NGOs and local organizations in both Guatemala and Honduras to create food security in an emergency situation and put in place effective programs that build resilience. I am inspired by the tremendous dedication of our team in the field, and the lives that they’re touching. Despite the great need in the world today, it is important to stay optimistic, and continue working hard to support and advocate for those that need our help. We will continue to make progress if we stay the course.

The resilience programs we visited are proof that many of our beneficiaries need only the right amount of technical or financial support to establish livelihoods. I’ll mention one more example: in Senaneca, Guatemala, there are about 137 families we’ve been working for the past three years. In this community, for example, we provided chickens, and women in the community started a small chicken and egg production program, selling eggs nearby. One day soon they hope to supply the local school with eggs. These women are incredibly industrious and ambitious and are on the path to self-sufficiency.

Visiting the field and meeting the people impacted by our work reaffirms my belief that we can disrupt hunger. We can help people build better lives. As part of that, we also have an obligation to be the voice of these vulnerable communities, and especially now, with the stakes higher than ever, they need us to be a very loud voice on their behalf. Working together as an anti-hunger community, we can do great things.

I hope that the Alliance and the rest of the anti-hunger community shares my optimism and works to redouble their efforts in the important work we do.