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Guelph woman fights food insecurity in Zimbabwe

Areas were already struggling when the pandemic struck

There are some needs that are non-negotiable. Food is one of them.

For Elizabeth VanVeen of Guelph, the need for food is understood across cultures.

VanVeen is currently in Zimbabwe, raising awareness about the worsening food crisis in the country as well as how the pandemic and severe drought continue to severely impact its people.

“If you don’t consume enough food or enough ‘good’ food, there will be problems,” VanVeen said.

Since moving to Zimbabwe in 2019, VanVeen has been working as a program policy officer with the United Nations World Food Programme, an organization that recently won a Nobel Peace Prize for its humanitarian work.

“The program I work with specifically, is the Lean Season Assistance (LSA) program, offering support to the most vulnerable in rural communities,” VanVeen said.

“Agriculture in Zimbabwe is very important. With lack of rain here and with so many other factors like pests and the effects of climate change, this all has an impact on food security,” she added. “And then you add COVID-19 to the situation, this is another compounding factor.”

Zimbabwe already faced widespread food insecurity prior to the pandemic, especially in rural communities.

In Zimbabwe, the pandemic regulations restrict movement of people across communities and access to markets and farming supplies.

With an increased number of COVID cases and travel limitations, the effect is the loss of potential income and food security for people in Zimbabwe.

“And in 2019, Cyclone Idai hit. With all of these compounding factors, this is where our program comes in,” VanVeen said.

“The UN World Food Programme reached 114 million people in 2020.”

It is the world’s largest humanitarian organization focused on hunger, food security and the provision of school meals.

The mission for the programme, VanVeen said, is “to be life changing”.

“It’s about building resilience, aiming to reduce hunger, overall. The program also helps refugees during severe crisis,” she said.

VanVeen said the LSA program usually operates between harvests but due to the pandemic, the program was launched earlier last year.

“Last year, the program reached about 3.9 million people in Zimbabwe. And this year, so far it has reached 1.7 million people,” VanVeen said.

The program especially helps provide nutrition for young children, along with pregnant and new mothers.

“A lot goes into these products to be able to provide the best food assistance. And the Small Grains Project helps farmers in providing seeds and training. There are other interventions also where we partner with various agencies, the government and other stakeholders who help to improve humanitarian access,” VanVeen said.

“It’s been really interesting living and working In Zimbabwe. For me, it was a good move to make. This is something I’m passionate about and I feel comfortable here. In most part, people speak English and Zimbabwe has such a welcoming feeling.”

Born in Red Deer, Alberta, VanVeen’s family moved to Guelph when she was three. Since then, the 30-year-old has lived in various countries including Yemen, Slovenia, Germany, Kazakhstan and Honduras.

“Growing up, my mother worked for an international school organization. I grew up in Yemen. But Guelph has always been the home base,” VanVeen said.

VanVeen has an educational background in science and education and has taught internationally.

“I followed my interests, but food was always highlighted throughout my education,” VanVeen said.

“During my teaching placement, I visited schools and the importance of food became so evident to me. It should be an equalizing factor. All children should have access to the same nutrition. This is what I’m passionate about, equal access to education and food.”

For VanVeen, the circumstances do not matter. The right to food should be global.

“I remember when my sister was a toddler, and we were in Yemen. An older lady we didn’t know, offered her a sweet potato. The need for food is understood.,” VanVeen said.

And how does Canada fit in?

Last year, Canada was the World Food Programme’s fifth largest donor.

“This illustrates that Canada cares about Food Security in Canada and globally,” VanVeen said.

“Over 60 million people go to bed hungry every day. Globally, it so important that the need for food is understood. It is something that doesn’t need to be explained to anyone.”