Examining Food Aid in Latin America

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Affecting more than one billion people in 2009, the worldwide ‘hunger pandemic’ has left many nations struggling to ensure the health and well-being of their citizens in a globalized society. Despite increases in agricultural innovation and production, the global community struggles to adequately address the causes and consequences of food insecurity, especially in Latin America. As market liberalization has increased food production and export, our world’s struggles with sustained access to food for all boils down to a simple concept, yet complex problem: “the mere existence of food—at the aggregate level—[does] not guarantee everyone’s access to food[1].” These elements of access, and by extension, distribution, are key to achieving greater food security in Latin America. However, accomplishing this goal requires challenging the function of modern food aid systems within the political and economic climates of target communities and re-evaluating their implications on a local scale. This article will therefore examine the reasons behind the failure of food aid programs in Latin America— focusing on indicators of food security, the ‘aggregate picture’, and welfare regimes— then examine case studies within Mexico and Colombia, in an attempt to uncover tangible next steps. Rethinking the large-scale approaches to food aid, this article will then focus on methods of mending these ineffective frameworks and achieving greater food security within Latin American communities through small-scale interventions focused on agriculture, employment, human capital, and distribution variety.


The international community’s response to food insecurity has historically been stuck in a cycle of trial and error. As world leaders continue to try and implement large, structural changes in administering food aid, their errors remain the same: the people making the decisions have little knowledge of how their actions affect the people they’re trying to help. The 1990s marked a rapid increase in the role of international organizations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as ‘champions’ of global aid, but the systems and regulations set in place to facilitate these projects instead served as an obstacle to local success. Essentially, the ‘macro’ perspective of international regulations, especially in the realm of food aid, often disregards the ‘micro’, specific problems faced by communities that are food insecure. Specifically, global measurements and indicators of food insecurity, too much focus on the ‘aggregate picture’ of aid distribution, and welfare regimes are all examples of institutional factors aimed to address food insecurity that have instead created greater detachment between global food aid and its recipients[2].

Food Security and Its Indicators

There’s more to the question of food insecurity than simply the lack of food itself. The United Nations defines food security as “people having at all times, physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food which meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life[3]”. Although qualitatively secure, when identifying the metrics of food insecurity within a region, this definition lacks uniformity, hindering our ability to see the full picture. The diverse range of approaches to assessing food insecurity paired with common inconsistencies in data—such as disregarding dietary quality, accounting for food consumed outside of the household, memory bias, and sample errors—reinforce a fundamentalist approach to an issue that requires a profound knowledge of the inner-workings of local government, food accessibility, and the distribution capacity of a target population[4]. This problem raises one of the major issues facing modern food aid: if the international community can’t understand the extent of food insecurity in a region, how can they effectively solve it? If communities facing food insecurity are approached as data points, how can aid be tailored to their human experiences? There is a significant lack of compassion and understanding of nuance within the realm of international food aid that needs to be mended in order to construct an effective approach to food aid.

World Food Programme distributing aid in Colombia [5]

The Aggregate Picture

The term ‘aggregate’ describes all elements of a particular supply, but in terms of food aid, the aggregate supply is only half the picture. Facing failure after failure in distributing food aid, the turn of the century marked the moment when world leaders finally began to acknowledge that countries with sufficient aggregate food supply and stable economies could still experience widespread hunger and food insecurity. Brazil serves as a prime example of how a structural approach to aid can fall short in generating significant outcomes. After the 1996 World Food Summit in Rome, where UN member states committed to ending hunger through structural adjustment programs (SAPs), subsequent initiatives began targeting macroeconomic factors such as exchange rates and interest rates in order to “correct existing distortions and trigger non-inflationary economic growth” in the region[6]. Brazil’s Fiscal Responsibility Law, a structural adjustment plan that curbed inflation and restructured debt for governments at the local and state levels, demonstrated how these macroeconomic factors don’t manifest enough tangible change on a local level. Although the Real GDP growth rate of Brazil nearly doubled after 2002, the unemployment rate stayed relatively high at 9.4%, with the poverty rate lingering at 29%, procuring little improvement in ensuring food security and other social necessities[7]. This ‘surface-level approach’ of SAPs and food aid demonstrates how policymakers tend to get lost in the aggregate picture of food supply, GDP, and International Reserves, not realizing that these factors have little impact on their constituents. As noted by UC Berkeley Global Studies professor Darren Zook, “centralized planning almost never understands that different regions need different things.” This historical disconnect continues to transform markets but achieves little improvement for local farmers[8]. Agricultural productivity suffers under these programs as well, as the involvement of outside organizations decentralizes local infrastructure projects, hinders competition between smaller producers, and weakens local policy, generating institutional deficiencies. The aforementioned failures of food aid demonstrate that aggregate food supply and macroeconomic growth comprise only a portion of the data needed to effectively address food insecurity within Latin American nations[9].

Welfare Regimes

The historical impact of welfare regimes in Latin America demonstrates a dangerous discrepancy between the intentions of an institution and its ultimate outcome. Welfare regimes facilitate important relationships between local markets, government, and families, but when one element isn’t protected, the system falls apart. A study conducted on the relationship between welfare spending and food availability with data from the FAO’s Food Insecurity Experience Scale demonstrates that although relatively ‘successful’ welfare regimes can increase food availability and food access, these increases do not create more food security. Most welfare regimes simply do not have enough understanding of local ways of life to allocate resources effectively. For example, Latin America is a region where “people’s well-being is deeply embedded in family relationships” resulting in many low-income families becoming highly dependent on female unpaid labor or children who stay home from school[10]. With this in mind, if an institution limits food distribution to primary schools or medical centers, aid can’t reach families living under circumstances where children stay home to help their parents or where single mothers can’t leave their children at home to pick up food. When institutions fail to consider these community-defining factors, they also fail to show the necessary commitment and understanding needed to help. Consequently, the power held by welfare regimes in conjunction with this lack of local consideration inherently procures skepticism within communities that feel that those in power do not understand the small-scale impacts of their policies. Essentially, these institutions are too large and too disconnected to make true change. Professor Zook relates this difficulty to the children’s game "telephone" highlighting the challenges to communication between different levels of government.

“Farmers say ‘this is what we need’ and by the time [the message] gets to the central government, it’s something completely different[11]

This obvious discontinuity in communication and lack of representation of local perspectives in policy-making proves that the current ‘hunger pandemic’ in Latin America is a by-product of poor institutional oversight and surface-level decisions that are made by outside perspectives[12].

A bag of maize labelled "Gift of World Food Programme" [13]

With the aforementioned issues in mind, it is important to understand how these global institutional issues manifest on a local level. Specifically, we will take a closer look at the impacts of food insecurity in two Latin American nations: Mexico and Colombia.

Case Study: Mexico & the Importance of Diet Variety

The citizens of Mexico were not exempt from the global economic turmoil of 2008, and as food prices in local markets soared, so did food insecurity. As of 2012, Mexico’s National Survey of Health and Nutrition reported that nearly one in three households experienced moderate to severe food insecurity and that 1.5 million children face chronic malnutrition. Even with consistent availability of food within the nation, these programs are often less accessible to demographics where the head of household is female, within households that speak indigenous languages, or in remote communities outside the scope of food aid programs. Further, although there are families meeting standard caloric sufficiency, many are unable to afford healthy food, resulting in anemia, newborn and maternal deficiencies, Vitamin D and fiber deficiencies, and obesity. In fact, 70.1% of adults in food-insecure households are overweight and obese, associated with increased rates of diabetes and hypertension in adults in Mexico. These nuances demonstrate the dangers of overlooking food variety and overall health in food aid, which is why it is key that the future of global food aid focuses more on the well-being of households through intersectoral communication and collaboration between local communities and governments[14].

Case Study: The Pitfalls of Economic Restructuring in Colombia

Despite having vast acres of arable land conducive to food production, the growth of rentier capitalism in Colombia since the mid-1970s has resulted in the slow, but consistent commodification of most rural land— affecting the roughly 60% of Colombian citizens who rely on agriculture for their livelihoods. Structural adjustment programs from the late 1900s have played a large role in the gradual decline of Colombia’s rural economy, and by extension, local access to food. A study conducted by the World Bank in 1998 found that decades of World Bank structural adjustment were so hyper-focused on the exportation of cash crops, that the integrity of local cultivation and distribution began to fail. The subsequent fluctuations in land prices dramatically affected local food production, as distribution processes became tailored to land availability and price competitiveness instead of equitable access for locals. As decades of conflict and political instability have reinforced these systemic pitfalls, food insecurity continues to soar, with more than 13% of children under the age of 5 experiencing malnutrition[15]. Growing up in Cartagena, Colombia, during the 1980s and 1990s, Paola Ocazionez describes that food in smaller communities was “mostly, if not all local,” insinuating a large emphasis placed on the role of the primary sector in everyday life. Mrs. Ocazionez continues that even her school lunches were composed of locally grown ingredients such as potatoes, rice, yuca, local fruits, and various cuts of meat sourced from local farms[16]. Considering the profound role of local production and consumption in Colombian communities, it is clear that attempting to solve food insecurity by importing large amounts of food and restructuring local economies in the 1990s hardly took into account the ways in which most communities functioned. Ultimately, Colombia and other Latin American nations suffering from food insecurity require the revival of local agricultural markets and support for their internal economies, ensuring the even, equitable, and sustained distribution of nutritious food[17].

What's Next?

Acknowledging these examples of generational shortcomings within the realm of international food aid, recent examples of small-scale change demonstrate methods that global organizations, non-governmental organizations, and local aid can take to make improvements. A Revista De Nutrição study highlights 4 key types of local interventions that have proven successful: agricultural production, employment and income, human capital, and food-based distribution. Taking these interventions into consideration, we will examine how food aid can be improved in the coming years.

Farmers are the backbone of the local food supply, meaning any effective solution must start here. Agricultural production interventions have the potential to revitalize the small farming sectors within local communities through the short-term distribution of necessary assets instead of flooding the local markets with ‘free’ food. For example, after a crisis or economic shock, a regional government or aid organization could use an incentive-based framework, sending seeds and tools to local farmers, and fixing the lack of food supply from within. These types of interventions could also take the form of investments in research, as new crops and farming techniques could bolster resiliency within local terrain. In mending local farming systems from within, local organizations can ensure that their efforts are solidifying sustainable change, empowering farming communities to regain steady control over regional agriculture instead of outsourcing aid that runs farmers’ products out of the market. A similar framework has recently proven successful in Nicaragua, where the CARE project’s “Seeds and Tools Initiative” helped “rehabilitate and protect their agricultural and foresters lands and reestablish crop production” in over 3,000 households[18]. By researching which crops would generate the greatest, nutritionally-sufficient seasonal yield, this program was able to equip farmers with the necessary tools to revitalize local agriculture and supply the community with nutritious food. Expanding a region’s agricultural production capacity can ensure that local communities have the autonomy to produce and sustain enough good food to support their own community.

The interconnectedness of unemployment, poverty, and food insecurity poses an important point of interest when addressing regional solutions. Employment and income interventions have proven successful in developing local economies and fighting poverty to ensure greater food security per capita. Methods such as “food-for-work” or “cash-for-work” exchanges, utilizing micro-credits to develop small businesses, and funding the training needed to restart and maintain local agriculture production and distribution systems can help revitalize public works and keep local economies productive and self-sufficient. This method can be implemented under a stimulus framework, where organizations are asked to make direct investments toward local employment and productivity initiatives focused on reducing poverty. For example, The World Bank’s Case Study on Microfinance, “Scaling Up Poverty Reduction,” found that local investments and exchanges can help liberate communities from larger banks. The CrediAmigo program in Brazil, for instance, offered sustainable microcredit to over 300,000 of the working population living in poverty, effectively increasing local purchasing power and bolstering the local economy[19]. Within this line of reasoning, local organizations could generate extreme positive change in Latin American communities through either directly investing in small businesses, or even setting up a forum for intra-community investment, ensuring that small steps generate stable change. These interventions can ensure that the local government of a region has the necessary resources to generate capital and keep its constituents out of poverty without requiring aid or conditionalities from outside organizations.

To prevent families from having to decide between fundamental needs such as food on the table or elementary education, human capital interventions offer important opportunities that can help low-income families get both. For example, conditional cash transfers, such as those instituted in Bolivia through the Bolsa Familia program, institute an incentive-based framework to provide necessary compensation for low-income families in exchange for sending their children to school or taking them to annual health checkups[20]. These programs have proven successful on numerous accounts in alleviating some financial pressure on families in poverty so that they can access welfare such as food aid. Other methods include offering service fee waivers for qualifying families, which could eliminate some of the socioeconomic barriers preventing low-income children from accessing the food offered to them through school. This solution can be implemented on a small scale by local governments or organizations aiming to increase students’ access to school lunch and reinstate trust in welfare systems. These access-related initiatives and many others can ensure that children of low-income families can still have a secure supply of nutritious food from their place of education, independent of their household financial situation.

For the final intervention, let’s revisit our main idea: just because a government has food doesn't mean that the people have food. Refocusing on the question of distribution, having a variety of methods of distribution reaching multiple socioeconomic levels is an integral step in expanding access to the aggregate food supply within a region. Some initiatives for local organizations to consider include rebuilding and supporting school feeding programs and food stamps systems. Again, under an incentive-based model, this approach ensures that in turn for investing in the school food systems and ensuring more equitable access to food stamps, more children begin attending public school and more people have the means to purchase food from local markets— therefore providing support to the local economy itself. These methods just cover the most fundamental distribution needs but are still so important to ensuring stable access to food. Other methods such as emergency distribution after natural disasters, additional access for pregnant women and infants through maternal health clinics, and short-term distributions offered to vulnerable populations in lieu of an economic shock or crisis can ensure that no one, even those suffering from temporary insecurity, is left behind in the global mission for food security[21]. By focusing on distribution methods through this incentive framework, local governments can both minimize insecurity within their region and further ensure that citizens are productively producing and consuming within a growing economy.

A glance at a school-provided meal in Mexico [22]

The protection of regional agriculture systems, vulnerable populations, and local perspectives is the key to distributing effective food aid in Latin America. Today, by means of international food aid, “The heart of the disconnect is that where the funds come from and where the knowledge comes from are in different worlds[23]. By supporting and empowering local communities, dismantling the neo-imperialist roots of centralized food aid, recalibrating the approach and power of international institutions, and better understanding the impact of our decisions, those wishing to make a true change can begin to do so sustainably.


[1, 2] Moreno Blanco, International Consultant, Adriana, "Food Security in Latin America" (2011). Western Hemisphere Security Analysis Center. 30. https://digitalcommons.fiu.edu/whemsac/30

[3] “Introduction - Food Security and Nutrition - A Global Issue - Research Guides at United Nations Dag Hammarskjöld Library.” United Nations, United Nations, https://research.un.org/en/foodsecurity

[4] Pérez-Escamilla, Rafael, and Ana Maria Segall-Corrêa. “Food Insecurity Measurement and Indicators.” Revista De Nutrição, vol. 21, 2008, https://doi.org/10.1590/s1415-52732008000700003

[5] “Millions at Risk of Severe Food Insecurity in Latin America and the Caribbean.” World Food Programme. WFP.org. Accessed 12 April 2022.

[6] Food and Agricultural Organization Resolution 02/5, Preparation for the World Food Summit: Five Years Later - Regional Dimensions, LARC/02/5. Havana, Cuba. 22-26 April 2002.

[7] Ter-Minassain, Teresa. Structural Reforms in Brazil: Progress and Unfinished Agendas. Inter-American Development Bank, https://publications.iadb.org/publications/english/document/Structural-Reforms-in-Brazil-Progress-and-Unfinished-Agenda.pdf

[8] Zook, Darren. Personal Interview. 28 March 2022.

[9] Winters, Paul, et al. “Food Insecurity and Vulnerability in Latin America and the Caribbean.” University of New England Graduate School of Agricultural and Resource Economics, Mar. 2000, https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3307441

[10] Franzoni, J. (2008). Welfare Regimes in Latin America: Capturing Constellations of Markets, Families, and Policies. Latin American Politics and Society, 50(2), 67-100. doi:10.1111/j.1548-2456.2008.00013.x

[11] Zook, Darren. Personal Interview. 28 March 2022.

[12] Hossain, M.B.; Long, M.A.; Stretesky, P.B.Welfare State Spending, Income Inequality and Food Insecurity in Affluent Nations: A Cross-National Examination of OECD Countries. Sustainability 2021, 13, 324. https://doi.org/10.3390/su13010324

[13] “Food Aid to Latin America” Friends of the Earth International. Accessed 12 April 2022.

[14] Shamah-Levy T, Mundo-Rosas V, Rivera-Dommarco JA. “Magnitude of Food Insecurity in Mexico: Its Relationship with Nutritional Status and Socioeconomic Factors”. Salud Publica Mex 2014;56 suppl 1:S79-S85.

[15] Richani, Nazih. “THE AGRARIAN RENTIER POLITICAL ECONOMY: Land Concentration and Food Insecurity in Colombia.” Latin American Research Review, vol. 47, no. 2, Latin American Studies Association, 2012, pp. 51–78, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23321732.

[16] Ocazionez, Paola. Personal Interview. 30 March 2022

[17] “Colombia.” IFAD, https://www.ifad.org/en/web/operations/w/country/colombia.

[18] “The Aftermath of Hurricane Mitch: How Care Is Responding - Nicaragua.” ReliefWeb, https://reliefweb.int/report/nicaragua/aftermath-hurricane-mitch-how-care-responding.

[19] “Scaling Up Poverty Reduction: Case Studies in Microfinance.” The Consultative Group to Assist the Poor. World Bank Financial Sector Network, 2004.

[20] “Bolsa Família: Changing the Lives of Millions.” World Bank, World Bank Group, 5 July 2012, https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/feature/2010/05/27/br-bolsa-familia.

[21] Rose, Donald Diego. “Interventions to Reduce Household Food Insecurity: A Synthesis of Current Concepts and Approaches for Latin America.” Revista De Nutrição, vol. 21, 2008, https://doi.org/10.1590/s1415-52732008000500014.

[22] “Food and Nutrition Security in Latin America and the Caribbean.” FAO Regional Office for Latin America. FAO.org. Accessed 12 April 2022.

[23] Zook, Darren. Personal Interview. 28 March 2022.

More posts by Emma Guard.
Examining Food Aid in Latin America
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