This World Food Day, I reflect on how food has encouraged my family through the ups and downs of the coronavirus pandemic. I’m amazed to think that perhaps Sophia, a farmer in Tanzania, has been feeling the same way.

When COVID-19 hit back in March, I started cooking dinners for my family with a vengeance. I did it every single night – chopping, marinating, roasting and stewing with the freshest local ingredients I could find. I was a full-on culinary machine.

Please know that this wasn’t my usual modus operandi. Pre-COVID, family suppers during the week were often a mishmash of turn-taking, takeout and “fend for yourselves, please!”

But suddenly, my need to nourish my loved ones well was almost overwhelming.

I think I was desperately worried. Like every family in the world, mine was vulnerable to an invisible virus with the power to kill. Suddenly, nothing was more important to me than nourishing my dear ones.

As the second wave hits, food, once again, is playing a huge role in our home. I’ve harnessed the power of meals to help comfort my bewildered teens, inspire them with new dishes and introduce some structure to their drifting days.

And to fortify them for whatever lies ahead.

Strength for the battle ahead

Everywhere in the world, food fills a unique and irreplaceable role. Meals nourish minds and bodies, connect people and build bridges between family members and strangers alike. Food is a great unifier and always a reason to celebrate!

But none of this can happen if there’s no food available. Without enough nutritious ingredients to go around, people starve – body and soul. If that’s true right here in Canada, just imagine what it’s like in some of the poorest regions of the world.

That’s why farmers like Sophia, in Tanzania, are so critical to those whose lives they touch. And it’s why she continues to inspire me, as COVID-19 numbers shoot up again here in Ontario.

Sophia is a widow with seven children and 14 grandchildren. She was already a great farmer and respected local leader when World Vision began working with her, through the ENRICH:1000 Day Journey Initiative.

Sophia is educating the women in her Tanzanian community about the nourishing power of orange-fleshed sweet potatoes. And she’s also teaching her grandchildren to pitch in during their free time! Photo: PAUL BETTINGS

Now, she teaches her community’s women to grow special orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, packed with iron and Vitamin A to boost the body’s strength and immune system.

While I was fiddling with recipes here in Toronto, Sophia was leading a new food movement in the Shinyanga Region of Tanzania. Back in 2016, she had stepped forward to receive training as a model farmer, as part of World Vision’s Enrich: 1000 Day Journey program. Her work was already going strong when coronavirus first made news headlines around the world.

“I’m inspiring pregnant women and families with young children to farm these potatoes, providing vines and farming knowledge and educating the women and children,” says Sophia.

It’s not very pretty, this orange-fleshed sweet potato – but it changes children’s lives. It cooks and bakes up into a dozen different delicious dishes. Photo: PAUL BETTINGS

People in this food-insecure region have traditionally faced stunted growth, cognitive delays, weakened immunity and the risk of delivering infants with low birth weight.

The orange sweet potatoes can be prepared in countless delicious ways, filling bellies and fortifying families to face what lies ahead. That includes the global impact of the coronavirus.

Turning the world upside down

This year, as we mark World Food Day, the global pandemic is undoing years of progress toward ending hunger and ensuring health for all the world’s people.

Children the world over have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Those in developing countries like Tanzania are among the most vulnerable. Photo: AGNESS JOHN

Even before COVID-19, malnutrition caused more than 2.3 million deaths around the world in children under five. Now, factor in lost jobs and devastated economies during the coronavirus. People who already struggled to survive with very little now have far, far less.

Here in Canada, there’s a been a soaring demand for food banks, as families contend with lost jobs and lockdown limitations. I read that some banks were needing to limit access this Thanksgiving due to COVID restrictions.

Now imagine living in one of the world’s poorest countries – places without basic social safety nets. Not only is malnutrition skyrocketing, but the shift in daily realities has trampled the rights of people with the least power: women, children and adolescent girls.

Families have had to make desperate decisions just to survive. Child marriage is on the rise, in the socioeconomic aftershocks of the pandemic. World Vision reported this spring that 85 million children were in immediate danger, due to the various effects of COVID-19.

Stepping out in power

My heart breaks to know that all this is happening. Most of the world’s food-insecure people are women and children who rely on agriculture as their primary source of food and income. COVID-19 is doing its best to throw their supply chains and social safety nets into a tailspin.

It’s no wonder to me that women in Sophia’s community look up to her. I do, from more than 12,000 km away in Toronto. Photo: PAUL BETTINGS

But then I recall women like Sophia, and my heart beats with joy. Thanks to their determination, their resourcefulness, and initiatives like the 1000 Day Journey, Sophia and other mothers can retain control of their fields and gardens. No matter what life brings their way.

I will think of them this World Food Day. And, as I prepare dinner for my family, perhaps I’ll add in some orange-fleshed sweet potatoes – in Sophia’s honour.

The ENRICH: 1000 Day Journey is a six-year initiative to support women and children’s health in very poor communities in four African and Asian countries. The work is led by World Vision, with funding from the Government of Canada.