While food banks could go a long way in reducing food insecurity in Nigeria, the charity mindset predominant in food assistance discourse limits its potential. Abundant research shows that investing in adequate nutrition is one of the best value-for-money development actions, but food security is neither seen as a catalyst for economic development nor a right Nigerians are entitled to.
Growing up, I would dread the week leading up to the beginning of Ramadan due to my parents’ tradition of preparing food packages to distribute to members of my extended family. Although my pre-teen mind had no doubt that this was a good thing, the time-consuming and repetitive nature of preparing these packages made it a daunting task. With the patience that comes with growing older, I have come to look forward to the month of Ramadan and its principles of compassion, community, and reflection. Perhaps my favourite manifestation of these principles is the practice where mosques and other community centres mobilize resources to provide free iftar (meal eaten during sunset) to the less privileged in society.
The practice of providing free food to the community is of course not exclusive to Ramadan, with individuals and organizations rolling out several food assistance initiatives all year long. The last few years have seen an increased formalization of these initiatives through food banks and pantries in Nigeria, with the likes of Lagos Food Bank, Food Bank Nigeria and NoHunger Food Bank working with several smaller NGOs and food pantries to distribute food to vulnerable populations. Before this, large-scale emergency food assistance initiatives were largely carried out by humanitarian organizations such as World Food Programme, which invested over $400 million in response to the insurgency in Borno, Adamawa and Yobe states in 2022.
Today, over 40 million Nigerians reportedly experience severe food insecurity, defined by Food and Agriculture Organization as going a day or more without eating due to lack. While food banks could potentially go a long way in reducing food insecurity in Nigeria, the charity or humanitarian mindset predominant in food assistance discourse limits its potential.
Abundant research shows that investing in adequate nutrition is one of the best value-for-money development actions, but food security is neither seen as a catalyst for economic development nor a right Nigerians are entitled to, and this view influences the positioning of foodbanks in the food security agenda.
FOOD BANKS AROUND THE GLOBE
In the 1960s, the concept of formal food banking began in the United States, after the country replaced the free distribution of federal food surpluses with food stamps which people had to pay for. Initially, most of these foodbanks’ supplies were food items from grocery stores which were close to expiry and would otherwise be wasted. In the 1980s, the US started its Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), through which the government buys surplus food from farmers and then distributes it to food banks. This program, which remains a major supplier of food banks in the US, paradoxically boosts the agricultural economy by increasing market prices for selected foods.
Since the late 1980s, foodbanks have also become commonplace across Europe, with over 300 foodbanks today mostly adopting the ‘waste redirection’ model to address hunger. Critics of foodbanks in Western countries point to it potentially distracting governments from addressing the systemic issues which drive hunger crises—low wages, rising inflation and rent, while critics in the US specifically point to the contradiction of using foodbanks to increase market prices through ‘manufactured food scarcity’ and thus contributing to increasing food insecurity.
Due to the novelty of formal food banking in Africa, prevailing narratives around the concept are based on non-African realities and typically do not reflect the peculiarities of African food systems. For example, while up to 40 per cent of total wastage in European and North American food systems occurs at the consumption stage (i.e., after reaching end markets), over 95 per cent of wastage in African food systems occurs before reaching end markets.
In Nigeria, up to 50 per cent of fruits and vegetables produced are lost mostly due to inadequate storage capacity in farms and poor connections to markets due to poor transport infrastructure. As a result of these narratives, the potential of food banks in supporting the livelihoods of rural smallholder farmers, who account for over 85 per cent of food production in Nigeria, is often overlooked. An example from outside Nigeria is Food Banking Kenya, which sources fresh fruits, vegetables and other foods that would otherwise have been wasted directly from farming communities.
While the Covid-19 pandemic spurred growth in the foodbank sector in Africa, there are still relatively few. For instance, the Global Food Banking Network has over 200 Indian food banks in its repository. It has only 16 food banks across all African countries: of which only two are Nigerian, based in Lagos and Abuja. The limited number of formal food banks in Nigeria is reflective of a broader collective apathy to the dire food insecurity situation in the country. Unpacking this apathy is particularly important; in light of the record-level inflation rates seen in the past year, with year-on-year inflation reported to be 22 per cent in March 2023 and a poverty rate of over 60 per cent, it can be inferred that there is widespread hunger across the entire country.
MOVING AWAY FROM THE CHARITY MINDSET
Lagos Food Bank is the largest foodbank in Nigeria, with several outreach initiatives targeted at children, women and other vulnerable populations across Lagos. Although locally owned and run, almost 90 per cent of their total funding comes from international grants while only five per cent comes from individuals. For foodbanks to have a significant impact on food insecurity in Nigeria, more local participation is essential, and for this to happen, there needs to be a mindset shift among Nigerians—the people and the government.
In most countries around the world, even in the most resource constrained settings, there is at least an aspiration by governments to provide universal basic education and universal health coverage. In 1999, Universal Basic Education (UBE) was introduced in Nigeria to provide free primary and secondary education to all, and the National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS) was established to provide access to affordable healthcare for all Nigerians. While both policies have yet to achieve their goals, they exist because education and healthcare are universally recognized as beneficial to the larger society in the long run; a healthy, educated population promotes economic development. Nutrition, however, is primarily treated as an individual or household responsibility in Nigeria.
The National Home-Grown School Feeding Program (NHGSFP), which essentially functions as a government-run foodbank, began in 2016 intending to provide one meal daily to 5.5 million of the total 28 million primary school pupils across Nigeria. Despite several implementation and funding challenges, this is undoubtedly a step in the right direction. However, unlike UBE and NHIS which sit in the Ministries of Education and Health respectively, NHGSFP sits in the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, further highlighting the prevailing mindset around such programs.
Nigeria has the second highest burden of stunted children in the world, with over a third of all under-five children reported to be chronically malnourished. There is ample evidence that stunting in early childhood is associated with poor educational performance, low wages and a higher risk of chronic diseases in adult life. These long-term negative effects are not confined to the household but are highly detrimental to economic development, hence the need to further mainstream childhood feeding assistance into the social fabric.
While most existing government nutrition programs are focused on children due to their heightened vulnerability to food insecurity, there is a need for adopting a wider household-view on food insecurity to position food assistance as a catalyst for economic development. The average Nigerian household is reported to spend over 50 per cent of its income on food items, while this number goes up to 65 per cent in Northern Nigeria. With so much of their income tied to feeding, these households often have a highly constrained capacity to contribute as much as they can to economic development. From a larger societal perspective, the return on investment of food assistance programs is high, and local food banks could play a key role in delivering these returns.
TOWARDS A HUMAN RIGHTS AND ECONOMIC GROWTH MINDSET
Recognizing that a human-rights based approach may ensure the most promising approach to eradicating hunger, the UN has included the right to food—defined as when every man, woman and child has the physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or means for its procurement—in its list of human rights, signed and ratified by 170 state parties. In Nigeria today, which was ranked 103rd out of 121 countries in the 2022 Global Hunger Index, the reality is far from this.
An important question in every social contract is ‘who bears the cost burden?’, and this is especially relevant in any conversation around mainstreaming food assistance through local foodbanks. While the government can and should put more funds into food assistance, the sheer scale of food insecurity in Nigeria should encourage the private sector to contribute.
For context, in 2022, the federal government allocated about N150 billion to NGHSFP. This program costs about N70 per child for each day they are fed. While these meagre efforts by the government are complemented by local foodbanks and religious organizations, addressing the hunger problem will require significantly higher contributions from the government, private organizations, and individuals.
In addition to only covering 20 per cent of the primary school population, there is also room to expand food assistance beyond a single meal per day and outside schools given that there are up to 20 million out-of-school children across Nigeria.
I asked a friend, ‘why do we only give food during Ramadan?’, and they responded, ‘I guess because it’s the month of charity’. If our society can change that mindset and begin to view adequate nutrition as a human right and a key catalyst for development, then perhaps we will garner the level of local participation necessary for foodbanks to turn the tide on hunger in this country⎈
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