Food-Based ProgramsOn September 28, 2017, the World Bank published its report on what they named the “1.5 billion people question.” 1.5 billion people around the world receive help via food and voucher programs. The study examines how important food-based programs are for the world’s poor and offers insight into the effectiveness of food-based programs versus cash-based programs.

The 1.5 billion people question asks “how voucher programs, despite theory and evidence generally favoring cash, remain relevant, have evolved and, in most circumstances, have improved over time”.

Food-based programs are a method used to subsidize poverty by funding, in part, certain nutritional expenses. Each country that implements food-based programs in their policies does so by using one or many methods, such as supplementary feeding programs, food for work programs and food stamp programs. These programs fall under two broad categories that either enhance the food supply or influence the demand.

Programs that enhance the food supply are primarily applied to the agriculture and farming industry by either influencing supply chain costs or incentivizing production. Programs that influence demand are known as “food-oriented social assistance” (FOSA). In the United States, these programs take the form of food vouchers, the Women, Infants and Children Program and the school lunch program.

The World Bank report analyzes how countries around the world have historically implemented FOSA as empirical evidence of the importance of food-based programs. It specifically looks at case studies of the United States, Mexico, Indonesia, India, Egypt and Sri Lanka. These countries represent key FOSA programs that have made significant efforts to enhance the quality of life for the participating households and have benefited nearly one billion people collectively.

While these countries are primarily high or middle-income, their studies can be applied to low-income countries as well. Food is about 61 percent of costs for the poor and represents a large stressor for households who are struggling to afford these expenses. FOSA programs such as food distribution programs and food subsidies influence more of the population than unconditional cash transfers (UCF). “Based on administrative data from programs in 108 countries, food and vouchers programs cover 20.4 percent of low and middle-income populations, 13 percent more than UCFs.” Although cash-based programs may be preferred, when food-based programs are enacted using the right specifications and safeguarding, many can benefit. When contemplating humanitarian assistance, large-scale international movements should consider food-based programs as a serious contender.

UCFs generally offer more freedom of choice compared to food or voucher programs that may only apply to certain foods or brands. On the other hand, governments lean towards food and voucher programs because they can reflect the interests of the country as a whole and protect purchasing power at vulnerable economic moments. Most large-scale food programs intertwine multiple sectors of the government, representing multiple industries such as agriculture and food retail. The implementation of food-based programs, therefore, relies on the cooperation of multiple political parties and an argumentative benefit to multiple economic sectors.

The link between poverty and food security has encouraged many countries to focus on developing social protection programs aimed at poverty reduction. By stabilizing the prices of food, governments have found ways to maintain a low cost of living and encourage international developments. Advancements in technology also promote new methods of poverty reduction and social assistance programs. In Indonesia, for example, the “social protection card allows access not only to the food subsidy but also to their cash-based and education-related programs.”

Food is a necessary commodity in daily life. Its relevance to health, economic and social indicators elevates the political significance of food-assistance programs. The six countries in this report have commonly overcome leaking or ineffective FOSA programs by maintaining a flexible dialogue. Technological advancements have reduced the costs of redeeming vouchers and transferring cash, and they have also allowed governments to implement and manage new programs with ease. In analyzing the successes and failures of specific programs, this report exemplifies the benefit of policy adjustability in determining the best solution to augment food security.

Eliza Gresh

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