“We feel that it was a recognition of the commitment and dedication of World Food Programme (WFP) staff worldwide to the cause of hunger,” said the Country Director of WFP in Sri Lanka Brenda Barton, commenting on the humanitarian organisation being awarded the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize.

The coveted award was bestowed in recognition of WFP’s perseverance in the fight to bring peace through the eradication of hunger.

Discussing WFP Executive Director David Beasley’s recent reference to food as the vaccine for hunger, she explained that when it comes to the hunger pandemic impacting people around the world, “food is at the root – it’s a fundamental need of families and people.”

Since the WFP is funded through voluntary efforts, it derives a majority of funds from various governments. To mobilise individuals to contribute to its efforts, Barton highlighted the importance of recognising the need to tackle hunger: “It lurks at the root of many conflicts around the world.”

“There is documentation indicating that conflicts have been driven by people feeling marginalised and lacking access to a basic need such as food,” she elaborated, adding: “If people recognise this strong connection, more will contribute not only to WFP but the global cause of helping address hunger.”

In her assessment of the Sri Lankan government’s response to the pandemic in the context of addressing food security, Barton commended the initiatives to protect communities to ensure that people had access to food.

Moreover, she drew attention to the private sector’s role in forming partnerships and using digital platforms to ensure that food was available at the height of the crisis.

“However, we’re in a difficult situation due to the impact of lost incomes and the loss of remittances, which always has a direct effect on the ability to purchase food,” she noted, asserting that “we must monitor what is taking place in the country, and put forward policies and programmes that not only increase agricultural production but also ensure food is available across the value chain.”

With regard to empowering people, Barton pointed out that while WFP previously offered handouts to support the government and communities in response to the tsunami in 2004, the organisation presently sees itself as lending a hand.

For example, programmes are geared to support the livelihoods of farming communities or offer protection against climate induced shocks.

According to the WFP, Sri Lanka’s malnutrition rate is estimated to be around 15 percent but in the country director’s view, this is a matter of a concealed hunger problem: “This refers to everything from inadequate vitamins and nutrients in diets, and children having enough food to maintain appropriate weights for their heights, to obesity and over-nutrition.”

To address these challenges, WFP employs a three pronged approach, which includes ensuring that fortified food is available in the market, farmers are aware of the nutritious food that can be grown and exported, and communicating with people to educate them about appropriate portions of food.

“Based on our work in Sri Lanka, we’ve learned that hunger does not go away but lives on in different forms,” Barton remarked, noting that WFP faces the challenge of tackling a nutrition emergency presently, compared to the difficulties in supplying food following the tsunami and at the height of the civil war.

In the coming years, she revealed that the WFP aims to be more responsive to needs on the ground as conditions in Sri Lanka can be unpredictable. In addition, Barton pointed out that the COVID-19 pandemic has shed light on the importance of food to all segments of the population including the younger generation.

“Schoolchildren are a vehicle for change for us to communicate the importance of nutrition, which they can disseminate to their friends and families,” she summed up.