World Food Programme food distribution in Yemen World Food Programme food distribution in Yemen  (WFP/Mohammed Awadh)

WFP provides massive food aid to Ukraine and globally to avert famine

The United Nations World Food Programme is rapidly expanding its emergency response to Ukraine to assist up to three million people, while trying to avert famine in Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Madagascar.

By Thaddeus Jones

The World Food Programme (WFP) is aiming to reach three million people caught up in the conflict in Ukraine with emergency food and cash distributions.

Just over a month and a half ago, WFP was not working in Ukraine, but after the start of the conflict it has set up offices in Ukraine and neighboring nations with over 170 staff.

They are rushing to rapidly expand WFP's outreach with emergency food assistance to at least 2.3 million people by the end of April. The violence in the nation has caused widespread disruptions in the distribution and availability of essential food.

Food and peace

WFP global spokesperson, Tomson Phiri, is currently in Lviv assisting in the operations there and says they are all working "to find immediate solutions to a very bad situation to a raging conflict," stressing that above all "we need peace in Ukraine, we need the fighting to stop."

He says WFP is worried the dire situation could worsen further with the great numbers of people needing help, especially women, children, and the elderly who make up the majority of the 4.2 million Ukrainians who have fled to neighboring countries. At the same time, over seven million people have been displaced internally, many caught up in the conflict and trapped.

The world's bread basket

Over the past decade, Ukraine had become WFP's largest supplier of food commodities, providing half of its global supply. Ukraine is a bread basket for the world, feeding over 400 million people worldwide through its annual agricultural production.

Phiri admits that there are serious worries over this year's growing season and what farmers will be able to produce due to the war.

The uncertainty has sounded the alarm for humanitarian aid agencies worried over diminishing grain supplies and the ability to meet pre-existing emergency situations in other parts of the globe.

Averting the worst

South Sudan, Afghanistan, Chad, Burkina Faso, Syria, and Yemen are just some of a number of nations risking widespread famine due to war and climate-averse conditions.

Phiri said WFP has had to cut rations in Yemen, adding, "that breaks my heart because eight million people are not receiving enough food." Before the conflict in Ukraine began, WFP had begun a massive program to reach 137 million people around the world risking hunger.

But with reductions in agricultural output, rising food prices, and funds needed to assist in the new emergencies, other regions of the world with pre-existing food crises could face dwindling life-saving assistance.

Immense gratitude

Despite the great difficulties and challenges in responding to the many global hunger crises, WFP is moving forward as best as it can.

Phiri says WFP is very grateful "for the extraordinary support mobilized by people around the world in response to the crisis in Ukraine," and has praised the "amazing show of solidarity from all walks of life by people."

At the same time, he expresses his hope and wish that people around the world, whether individually or collectively through governments, will rise to the occasion in the same way to assist the hungry in other parts of the world.

Peace can eliminate hunger

WFP estimates that nine out of ten of the world's biggest food crises are caused by war, therefore, by human beings. Going to the root causes of hunger also means stopping conflicts before they erupt and generating a strong political will to silence weapons where fighting is raging.

Tomson Phiri emphasizes that, "we need peace if we are to stand a realistic chance of eliminating hunger in the world."


Interview with Tomson Phiri
Global Spokesperson, World Food Programme


Q: How would you describe the humanitarian situation you are witnessing now in Ukraine?

The humanitarian situation is quite dire, and we see it might worsen. You get a sense that things will get worse before they get better. We have more and more people in need of assistance now. There are approximately 4.2 million Ukrainians, mostly women, children, and the elderly, who have already fled the country and sought refuge in neighbouring countries. At the same time, you have more than seven million people who have been internally displaced. Now that’s a classic example of a humanitarian crisis, where you have a massive displacement, where you have active conflict in some parts of the country, and you have constrained access, and humanitarians are unable to reach people. So, you have multitudes of people who are caught up in the conflict, who are trapped, who can't leave, and who are unsafe because of fighting.

Q: How is the WFP trying to alleviate the situation there on-site?

The World Food Programme has landed on its feet here. Six to seven weeks ago, we were not working in Ukraine. Five weeks later, we had landed in the country. We already have 170 plus aid workers that are working. We have set up operations within Ukraine. We have three offices that we are setting up, and we have set up offices in neighbouring countries. We have reached one million people in one month. And we are scaling up in hoping to reach 2.3 million people by the end of April. We are providing emergency food assistance. We are scaling up cash-based assistance where people can self-register and within 48 hours receive cash or value vouchers for them to buy food on the market.

Q: How sustainable is this situation?

Whatever it is that we are doing is trying to find immediate solutions to a very bad situation, to a raging conflict. The solution however is political. We need peace. We need peace in Ukraine. We need the fighting to stop. We need guns to be silenced. And indeed, we need peace in all conflict areas, because it is conflict that breeds humanitarian situations.

Q: How has the Ukrainian situation affected your programs worldwide where needs are also quite desperate, especially in some regions?

Over the past ten years, Ukraine has grown to become WFP’s largest supplier of food commodities by volume. In just one decade, our purchases in imports from Ukraine have grown from just 29,000 in 2011 to over 880,000 metric tons, which is over half of WFP’s global supply. Ukraine is a powerhouse producer of grain. It is a country of 40 million that feeds 400 million worldwide. As things stand right now, we are not sure whether the country will be able to produce. There is a big question mark that now stands. Are farmers going to be able to produce, and if they do, are they going to be able to export as they used to do? Now what this means is more and more people globally are going to struggle to find food. Countries, private sectors, agencies such as the World Food Programme are going to have to identify in a very short space of time alternative sources of grain. And that’s not easy. That’s not something that can happen overnight. So that is leaving a huge gap. And I’m not too sure there is a region or a country at this point that can fill it up. In terms of operations for the World Food Programme, the cost of operating activities has gone up by 71 million per month. That’s food that we are already reducing somewhere in order to just resource operating costs.

Q: What kind of appeals is WFP making here, what are you asking governments and people to do?

At this point in time, WFP is grateful for the extraordinary support mobilized by people around the world in response to the crisis in Ukraine. We always appreciate offers for in-kind support and review them comprehensively to determine if they align with current needs in country. Now, financial support remains the most effective way to support vulnerable families while also supporting local markets because Ukraine is a food surplus country. We aim to continue to buy locally, to assist people here as well as to scale up cash-based assistance. Whilst people have been very supportive and whilst our donors have dug deep into their pockets, we need 590 million for the next six months to be able to continue to what we are doing to scale it up to reach more and more people.

Q: What parts of the world are you most worried about now, most concerned about regarding access to essential food?

I think Ukraine is one of those, and South Sudan is another. We have had to cut rations in Yemen and that breaks my heart because eight million people are not receiving enough food. We have had to cut rations in Chad, Nigeria, particularly the northeast parts of that country, Burkina Faso, Madagascar, Afghanistan, Syria, the list goes on and on. In fact, before the onset of the conflict in Ukraine, WFP was already gearing up to undertake one of its biggest operations ever to reach 137 million people. Now with this conflict we anticipate those needs to rise.

Q: Is there any positive or hopeful aspect you see in all this despite the seriousness and the grave needs you have underscored?

There has been an amazing show of solidarity from all walks of life by people from various backgrounds to the plight of Ukrainians. We are going to need some of that for the rest of the world.

Q: If you were to subtract all the human-made crises around the world, what kind of position would we be in regarding food availability?

I think humanity is its own enemy here. I think we are our worst enemy, but we can also do a lot of good. We need conflicts to end. Nine out of ten of the world's biggest food crises are caused by conflict, man-made conflict. We need peace if we are to stand a realistic chance of eliminating hunger in the world. 

Listen to interview with World Food Programme global spokesperson Tomson Phiri
11 April 2022, 17:58