In Northern Triangle, rising food insecurity tests NGO adaptability

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A man receives food aid during a curfew, as the COVID-19 outbreak continues in Guatemala City, Guatemala. Photo by: REUTERS / Luis Echeverria

WASHINGTON — A heightened risk of food insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras has mobilized NGOs in the region — even those that don’t typically engage in humanitarian response — to ensure people in both rural and urban areas have access to food.

The three “Northern Triangle” countries each have strict mobility restrictions in place that have left many people, particularly those in the informal sector, without work. While measures in each country differ slightly, people are only allowed to leave their homes certain days of the week for food and medicine, which means those who made their living selling goods on the street are unable to earn an income.

Households have also seen a drop in remittances from the U.S. as family members there have lost work, further decreasing funds available to buy food.

Farmers in rural parts of the “Dry Corridor” area of the Northern Triangle are also vulnerable, as they work to recover from the compounding impacts of drought over the last several years.  

In Honduras, men and women are allowed out of the house for supplies on different days of the week. Government restrictions have forced the World Food Programme to be extremely nimble in how it reaches at risk populations with food aid, WFP Honduras Deputy Director Etienne Labande said.

“What is really challenging is that the type of assistance, the way to reach the population, has to be extremely flexible because we have parts of the country where there’s a problem of [food] availability,” Labande explained.

“We have part of the country where the population cannot move enough to reach the closest bank, for instance, to receive a cash transfer.”

WFP is working with the Honduran government on food distribution, including making sure any stocks left over in now-shuttered schools can be distributed to families and doesn’t go to waste.

The organization is also monitoring food prices, to be sure that staples such as beans, corn, rice, flour, and eggs remain affordable. According to humanitarian data platform ACAPS, a survey by the Honduran government found that 3.2 million people in the country need food support and 90% of households don’t have reserves to last more than a month.

“Over the last decade, there’s been multiple droughts and the combination of this [with COVID-19] is going to make [farmers’] situation much more precarious.”

— Blain Cerney, head of programs, Catholic Relief Services El Salvador

Navigating government regulations requires not only NGOs but also trucking and distribution companies to have permits to conduct their activities in areas where mobility is otherwise restricted.

Labande added that because some departments and municipalities of Honduras have stricter measures in place than the federal mandate, contracting food delivery has become exceedingly complicated for WFP.

Stabilizing smallholders

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While normal field operations remain paused, NGO Global Communities is shifting its work in Honduras to ensure farmers have access to agricultural inputs they need for the upcoming planting season, as well as adapting the food supply chain to manage health concerns during the pandemic.

Eva Mejia, country director for Honduras, said the organization will implement a program to manage biosecurity of the food supply as it leaves the farm.

“What happens when the products are taken to the markets?” Mejia said. “We’re reviewing how and proposing how we can support that value chain … so that we can continue producing in a safe way and reduce the risk of any COVID situation.”

Small producers are particularly vulnerable during the pandemic, Mejia said, because they are less organized and are usually in more remote areas of the country. Global Communities will provide 13,000 small producers in Western Honduras with agricultural inputs and the government will then buy their harvest to distribute to families in need of emergency food assistance, ensuring a market for the products.

“They don’t have the financial capacity to buy the inputs. There are some mobility restrictions. There’s no public transportation,” Mejia said of vulnerabilities smallholders face. “They have less access to negotiation power to buy agricultural inputs and they don’t have the capital … These restrictions affect them more than, for example, bigger producers.”

According to a recent study conducted by Catholic Relief Services, 80% of farmers in El Salvador said they are concerned about where their next meal will come from after mid-April. This time of year, farmers would typically sell reserves from their last harvest to buy basic goods like eggs, oil, and milk that they cannot grow. But Blain Cerney, head of programs at CRS El Salvador, said many are changing their habits given fears of food insecurity.

“Our findings are essentially that they’re afraid: One, to go to market; and two, because if they sell their basic grains they have no guarantee that they’ll be able to get more of those things in the coming weeks,” Cerney said.

Prices of staple foods have increased, Cerney said, with eggs having gone up in price between 50 and 100%, while oil and rice are up 20 to 25%, “which is a pretty big deal for poor families,” Cerney said.

“We’re anticipating that up to a million farmers across the region are going to have severe food insecurity because of the accumulated impact of droughts over the years,” he said. “Over the last decade, there’s been multiple droughts and the combination of this [with COVID-19] is going to make their situation much more precarious.”

In Guatemala, Plan International is monitoring food prices by using telephone surveys to discover which geographic areas of the country may have a stressed food supply. Most agricultural activity is continuing, and Guatemala Country Director John Lundine said planting is expected to take place after the first rains in May despite government restrictions, including a ban on movement between departments.

But just because farmers can plant doesn’t mean they will have enough to eat, Lundine said.

“One thing that is misunderstood is that the majority of poor people in the Dry Corridor areas are actually more dependent on off-farm labor activities, from an economic standpoint, than they are on certain farm crop production,” Lundine said.

“On-farm crop production is important, but it’s not as if it provides enough food for half of the year or the whole year for the majority of these households.”

Food aid with a side of mindfulness

In urban areas, informal workers are not only without an income, but are also often confined in smaller and more densely populated spaces. Stressors caused by the quarantine situation, including food insecurity, has led development organization Glasswing International to quickly shift programming toward addressing people’s most immediate needs.

Vice President of Programs Celina de Sola said Glasswing, which typically runs programs focused on reducing violence and addressing trauma, has pivoted its crisis response in El Salvador to include food distribution.

“If you can alleviate that basic need [for food] you're also addressing other stressors within the household that can lead to violence. How do we try to adjust as many stressors as possible?” de Sola said.

She added that in some cases, food distribution is being done by the suppliers because going house-to-house to distribute food is not allowed under some government rules.

Glasswing is also exploring a way to prepay for groceries at supermarkets and have people go pick them up on days when they are allowed out of their homes for shopping. The organization wants to include some of its violence reduction and mindfulness activities in a take-home format to distribute along with food aid.

“We see it as very connected right now,” de Sola said. “If you're hungry and you can’t feed your kids, there’s very little else you can do to make your household function and be stable.”

About the author

  • Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh has reported from more than 10 countries and is currently based in Washington, D.C. Her coverage focuses on Latin America; U.S. foreign assistance policy; fragile states; food systems and nutrition; and refugees and migration. Prior to joining Devex, Teresa worked at McClatchy's Washington Bureau and covered foreign affairs for U.S. News and World Report. She was a reporter in Colombia, where she previously lived teaching English. Teresa earned bachelor of arts degrees in journalism and Latin American studies from the University of Wisconsin.