The focus used to be on availability of food, but now people recognize that availability isn't enough if the people who need it can't access or utilize it.

Erin Lentz

The 2004 Southeast Asian tsunami devastated the coast of Sri Lanka and elsewhere but often left inland agriculture mostly unharmed. An outpouring of private, cash-based donations meant that many traditional disaster relief agencies had, for the first time, a choice: Should they provide food aid, brought from the outside, or should they provide cash to purchase locally available food?

Many aid workers recognized an opportunity to buy rice from inland Sri Lankan communities, which was a faster and cheaper method of getting much-needed food to the coast than external food aid. Professor Erin Lentz, international relations, says the tsunami case is an excellent example of the world's changing approach to food security transfers.

Lentz uses the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization definition of food security, which includes three pillars: adequate food is available, people can access it and people can utilize it. She thinks that this is the most useful definition among many. "The focus used to be on availability of food, but now people recognize that availability isn't enough if the people who need it can't access or utilize it," she says. 

After the tsunami, Lentz began researching in which situations non-governmental organizations (NGOs) should provide cash versus food. She and her colleagues developed a set of tools for organizations to assess crisis situations and gauge appropriate responses. She worked with the relief agency CARE to try to figure out how to incorporate this type of assessment into their efforts. At the time, the U.S. government only provided food aid, but the emerging examples of how cash could be a better option moved policymakers. In 2008, a pilot project began that allowed U.S. NGOs to purchase and distribute food locally through a process called local procurement. 

Lentz and her collaborators have collected data that compares traditional approaches to food aid and various options for local procurement, and they have found that choice makes all the difference in providing the most effective aid at the best cost with the highest benefit to the people who need it. The team's data has been used by the Obama administration in a proposed Farm Bill. 

Recently, Professor Lentz has expanded her focus to include how inequality relates to happiness. She says that many scholars are comparing happiness among low-income countries, but not many are looking at what makes people feel happy within their specific societal context. "I'm interested in unpacking whether or not inequality has an impact on peoples' feelings about their lives, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa where there is a lot less research on happiness in general and also such a variety of environments in which people are living," she says. She's excited to find out what this new project will uncover. 

Posted October 10, 2013

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