A vivid picture of what food access really means

I get it. I’m honestly telling you I get it why so many people are

upset and why a populist viewpoint can be so appealing right now. I also get that no one wants to read another piece of hackneyed drivel by some millennial from a monolithic liberal population who could’ve just as easily said “worn-out garbage” instead of “hackneyed drivel”. Well, you’re in luck. I am not a millennial, and I’ll leave the whole idea of a monolithic liberal population alone and just hope someone appreciates the humor. No one wants a story about some far off place that “can’t get their act together” depending on USAID, or other aid agencies for their daily food. “If we just stopped giving aid, they would get their act together. We have enough of our own problems”. Sounds familiar, right? So maybe it’s better if I just talk to you directly and maybe in the process paint a more vivid picture? Besides, no one likes talking about anyone more than himself or herself. Oh, and by the way, this isn’t my ‘begging the question’ (yes, I’m actually using this phrase correctly) but you can see for yourself (Tamir, D. I., & Mitchell, J. P. (2012). Disclosing information about the self is intrinsically rewarding. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109(21), 8038-8043.).

So, let me paint a picture of you or your son or daughter, or niece or nephew. Let’s say you’re about 26 years old, a few years out of college, and just got promoted to a middle management position in some seemingly nice corporation. It’s about time too because that entry level job was not what you thought you’d be getting out of college, and you were beginning to look for opportunities somewhere else, perhaps with nicer weather? Or maybe it was a place with cheaper rent because having a roommate at 26 is just not where you pictured yourself. But hey, it beat the alternative of having to move back in with mom and dad because the rent was too expensive and your student loans were just too much that your paycheck could just barely cover it. Somewhere an opportunity will come up where your full potential is realized, and you can get out. After all, you have access to a world of networked systems and people.

But wait, and put those plans to move on hold, you’ve been promoted! Your company is looking to do some nebulous thing called “diversify”. You don’t really know what that is, and the executives seem to think that a millennial will have the pulse of other millennials, so whatever this “diversify” command is, you’re the one to do it since you’ve been with the company for 4 years now. You’re going to manage a team of four full-time employees fresh out of college, 2 part-timers, and 2 interns from the nearby college down the street that just graduated not so long ago. They had the same access to education and entry-level jobs as you did, and your bosses are looking for your team to return the favor by getting access to that coveted 18-34 year old market. You have to report directly to the executive VP of Growth Strategies and Market Development, and you’re going to be given the equally vague but no less important-sounding title of “Director of Special Projects”. Your salary’s doubled, you’re maxing out your 401k, and you just put a first and last month’s deposit on a nice one-bedroom with a small balcony. You’re doing pretty well in this middle-sized city now, making $65,000 per year, or about $178 per day. Now imagine you’ve found someone special, gone on a few dates, and you really want to impress. Nothing like cooking for someone, right? You don’t know how to make much yet because as a single person you haven’t really had to. That said, you can make something simple, like pasta. So you go to the grocery store and buy the sauce and noodles (thankfully you have all of the other ingredients). It can’t be a Bolognese pasta because the noodles and sauce alone costs $71.

Wait a second, that can’t be right. What is this pasta made out of, Carrara marble from the Statue of David? Everyone knows a jar of sauce and package of linguine won’t cost more than about $8. Could you imagine if that pasta really did cost $71? That’s what it would cost in Malawi. Actually, a plate of beans in Malawi costs about 41% of the average daily income, according to the World Food Programme. It’s highly likely that refined grains and processed tomato sauce would cost much more.

Are people in Malawi eating the Statue of David? Clearly not, but I hope the facetiousness of my comments are helping to drive home a point about food access. Most of the foods in our grocery stores are normal goods, or inferior goods (meaning that a rise in income causes a decline in demand). Some are Veblen goods (think organic or Whole Foods, for example), but access to food is not a real issue for Americans. Even the poorest of Americans are guaranteed food access through food stamps.

The lack of access to food in Malawi and places like it is far more serious, and potentially deadly. The lack of food access is a major cause of food insecurity and malnutrition that compound into losses of productivity and decreased long-term human health. Other, less direct losses are associated with food access as well, like education. A lot of time and money are spent on aid with mixed results. We want to send more children to school globally, especially women. But if we want those programs to really last beyond the length of a grant cycle, then it’s important that a plate of beans in Malawi doesn’t cost 41% of someone’s daily income. A construction worker in Malawi might make $30 per month, and when inflation runs at 25% because of a drought, it becomes nearly impossible to feed a family. Thankfully, most Malawians grow their own food. But, that pesky drought will affect those crops too.

Lower income countries are not the only ones with food price issues. India has ever more expensive food too, but they have enough economic clout and enough agricultural prowess to conduct contract farming, which basically means they will sign a contract to procure crops from farmland in places like Malawi and Mozambique to meet their own domestic demand. Assuming the contracts are fair (often a big assumption), this may give a shot in the financial arm to contracted farmers to enable them to buy more foods, at least in the short term. However, given the volatility of the market, does this really benefit the average person in Malawi in the long run? Malawian farmers can be more productive, and certainly studies have shown that adopting new technologies is possible in lower income countries and likely follows the same diffusion of innovations theory that is found in the developed, higher income countries. But when the grant runs out and the donated equipment fails, who fixes it? Who trains a new generation of Malawians on how to integrate this equipment into their farming operations? Who develops the robust marketplaces where these goods can be sold or traded? Who ensure the roads and other transport and storage systems are adequate to ensure that an increase in production won’t simply be wasted, anyway? Who connects all of these systems and integrates them into the global Internet of Things? Finally, who monitors all of these systems? These are tough questions, and it can become pretty clear right away why many awarded grants prove a concept on a farm only to find that those educational benefits don’t scale and don’t lift up many more people. So how can good outcomes be translated into better impact involving many people? To start, those very people need access, but that is a difficult conversation to have.

It’s very easy for someone who has access to make decisions about the access of others. For example, there is currently a lot of talk about the Affordable Care Act in the United States (otherwise known as Obamacare). Regardless of what you think about the law, the aim was to increase access to healthcare. Many people argue for or against it, wishing it was better, wishing it was broader, or whishing for parts or all of it to go away. This is all fine and part of a healthy discussion, but the salient point that is often overlooked is that everyone has access to healthcare in the United States. Let me repeat this because many people don’t realize this fact: everyone has access. The Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act of 1986 ensures that any hospital that accepts Medicare payments from the US Government must provide emergency medical screening and then emergency care until the condition is resolved, regardless of the person’s medical condition, citizenship, legal status, or ability to pay. At a minimum, this is guaranteed access. It won’t guarantee that someone won’t need to file for bankruptcy when the medical bill comes due, but at least that person won’t die from a treatable condition simply because he or she is denied care because payment cannot be made ahead of time. Take that level of guaranteed access away, and I’d bet the arguments over Obamacare are very different in nature. No one wants to have chest pains or signs of a stroke, but imagine if, when the ambulance pull up the driveway, it will sit idling until proof of your insurance is verified for that type of condition, or worse yet, until your credit card or debit card is swiped.

In a sense, this is what is happening in places like Malawi. It’s very easy for people with guaranteed food access to say what Malawi should do, or to shake their heads at the Malawians and just say, “Why can’t you just fix your own issues?” It’s also easy to become jaded against researchers who try and fail or even those who try and succeed but can’t scale right away, calling it a waste of money. Delivering and measuring real impact takes time, and few agencies have the patience to wait for those results. But imagine if you were to wake up in the morning, and your number one thought is how to access food and water, and you know you’re going to need all the help you can get doing it, how likely are you to send your able-bodied children to school, even if it is located right down the road and paid for by international aid?

Food access is a real issue in lower income countries and often the main initial stumbling block to taking good ideas to scale. Thankfully there are agencies like the United Nations Development Program, various national aid programs like USAID, UKAID, and IDRC (Canada), and also the World Bank that focus on the building blocks of peaceful life. More is needed, and groups like the Humanitarian Innovation Fund are unique in their approach to find innovative approaches to humanitarian aid. More is always needed, and the problems that are continents away appear less vivid, and thus less important. I hope this article goes a little bit of the way to paint a more vivid picture of what is actually happening on the ground. Regardless of what you hear in the news about a specific research project or a specific story that focuses on access to services and commodities, and whether it’s referred to as a right, privilege, luxury good, normal good, or staple, think about your family’s past accomplishments, its present status, and the trajectory of its future. Then ask yourself this question: could you send your kids to college if pasta cost $71?