There’s a fifth season in Central America and much of the developing world, and it’s deadly.
“Hunger season” is a stretch of time each year when farmers exhaust their food reserves and widening numbers of people have little, if anything, to eat until the next harvest, September for Central America.
Though it typically starts in May, hunger season began much earlier this year than usual: in January. In other words, for a full nine months, millions will face near-term misery and death and longer-term damage to their health and ability to thrive. Right now, nearly 8 million people in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua are food insecure, meaning their sources of nutrition are highly unreliable. Among those, nearly 2 million urgently need food just to stay alive.
The hunger season’s ominous extension this year is the result of a triple whammy of back-to-back hurricanes (Eta and Iota) that swept through Central America in November 2020, of COVID-19’s profound social and economic disruptions and of the mounting longer-term damage imposed by climate-related shocks.
On a recent trip to Guatemala and Honduras, I learned what it means to face the hunger season.
In Honduras, I visited the manufacturing center of Choloma, where the hurricanes battered factories that provided the livelihoods of many local residents, destroyed homes, displaced nearly 70 percent of the population and washed away farms.
Everywhere I visited, farmers spoke of their steadily intensifying battle each year against the ravages of prolonged drought and excessive flooding – the unquestionable byproducts of a warming climate. More and more, farmers like these have lost those battles, which decimate their harvests, force them to sell farm equipment and livestock and leave them without the tools to rebuild their production in the future.
It is a complex, vast and difficult problem but one that we in the United States cannot ignore. Not just because of our natural humanitarian impulse to ease the suffering of others, but also because of sheer self-interest. Consider that a steadily growing number of Central Americans who, try as they might, can’t escape the dark and relentless shadow of hunger are, out of desperation, contemplating (and increasingly attempting) the perilous trip north to the U.S.
We have tools to solve this problem, or least blunt its impact. They start with addressing the most immediate, urgent needs — especially during hunger season — alongside longer-term efforts to make Central America’s food production system more resilient to battering it will continue to take.
Throughout my visit, I heard many people say they don’t want to be dependent on humanitarian aid. They want to be self-sufficient. But the grim reality is they need help to get past perilous times like this.
That’s the aim of an emergency cash-based transfer system – made possible in part by U.S. government and private sector funding and administered by the United Nations World Food Programme – that provides families the equivalent of $75 once a month for a couple months in areas with functioning markets. The program gives people like two I met and will never forget– Estelly, a Guatemalan mother of two, and Amal Blanca, who lost his home in Choloma to last year’s hurricanes – cash to purchase produce and staples such as beans, cereal, milk and bread.
The U.N. World Food Programme also provides emergency food assistance, like the 120-pound bags of food and supplies it delivered in Santa Barbara, Honduras, a mountain community that lost 160 homes to the hurricanes.
And to head off chronic child malnutrition (which plagues more than 46 percent of Guatemalan children between six and 59 months and half as many Honduran children of the same age), I saw in the town of Jocotan a U.N. World Food Programme initiative with Guatemala’s Ministry of Health and Development to provide weekly supplies of a fortified super cereal, called NutriNinos, for children from 6 months to 2 years old.
Frontline efforts are essential, but they are only fingers in a dike that groans against the rising tide of Central America’s food insecurity. Communities there also need to harden their longer-term defenses against climate-induced challenges to food security.
I witnessed firsthand how The U.N. World Food Programme helps vulnerable communities build resilience to climate shocks, through sustainable agriculture training for farmers, land rehabilitation, livelihoods projects that help entrepreneurs create and sustain small businesses and programs like one in the Guatemalan community of Zacapa that has helped women start a small chicken and egg production system to ensure a steady flow of income and nourishment.
Then there are the efforts in Choloma to build up riverbanks and elevate newly built homes to the reduce the risks of flooding. Or another in Cerro Verde, Honduras, that uses green houses to cultivate seedlings and prevent pests from harming the produce, manages seasonal crop rotations to keep soil healthy and provided a water storage tank to promote irrigation.
In the parts of Central America I visited, it was distressing and humbling to see the staggering difficulties so many people navigate daily to keep a step ahead of hunger. Even so, this trip left me hopeful and optimistic, largely because of the resilience and emergency programs that are helping Central Americans at this time of dire need. Without affirmative and sustained steps to roll back the erosion of food security in Central America, every season there might become hunger season.
Barron Segar is CEO of World Food Program USA.