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The fact that up to 828 million people are chronically hungry across the world suggests that food systems – the networks that are needed to produce and transform food, and ensure it reaches consumers – are not meeting the needs of large sections of society. Improving the performance of food systems and their ability to cater even for the poorest will therefore be key to achieving Zero Hunger.

Flawed or broken food systems can affect food security in a number of ways. They can drive prices up, making it difficult for the poorest to afford nutritious food, or prevent smallholder farmers from making good profits from their crops.

Food system disruptions can be linked to shocks related to climate change and globalization, as well as conflict and strife. Even in stable contexts, poor communication, transportation and storage facilities, dysfunctional commercial markets and inequalities can limit people’s ability to access the food they need.

For the World Food Programme (WFP), food systems are not abstract concepts. Our experience buying and distributing food in 80 countries across the world has given us an understanding of the main problems facing food systems. These are: 

  • The “last mile” problem – The vast majority of the hungry poor are isolated – geographically, economically, socially and politically – and hard to reach. Even when nutritious food is available, it is often too expensive.
  • The “bad year” or “lean season” problem – When crops fail, or during the lean months between harvests, poor families in both urban and rural areas lack the resources to meet their food needs and are forced to adopt detrimental strategies to cope, including eating less, and less nutritious, food.
  • The “good year” problem – Even a plentiful harvest can have its downsides. Inadequate capacity to store, market and transport food surpluses causes food prices and quality to drop. Farmers are unable to put their produce for sale at a premium when demand is highest, food is wasted and spoiled, and market volatility is sharpened.

These three problems tend to affect women more, partly because they have more limited access to assets and services, and may be excluded from decision-making processes.

Because of the nature of WFP’s work, our partnerships, programmes and capacities stretch across food systems, and are especially strong within the “midstream” – where food is transported, stored, handled, processed, wholesaled and retailed.

The size and reach of our operations mean we have a great potential to address the systemic problems that disrupt food systems. For example, in Kenya’s Kakuma and Dadaab refugee camps, WFP is leveraging its purchasing power and the creation of consumers’ demand through its cash-based transfers to address inefficiencies along the supply chain and achieve the best value for refugees and host communities.

Other examples of WFP interventions that can have a positive influence on food systems include Home Grown School Meals, which connect local smallholder farmers to the supply chain of school meals programmes; fortification initiatives that help communities access locally produced nutritious food; the creation and rehabilitation of infrastructure in exchange for food or cash-based assistance; strengthening public food reserves; and supporting smallholder farmers through the facilitation of credit, capacity development and access to markets.

Food systems