We face an unprecedented crisis as a global humanitarian community. The scale of COVID-19’s impact on world markets and subsequent mass restrictions on the movement of goods and people has not been seen since the second World War, well before the World Food Programme (WFP) was established in 1961, at the behest of then U.S. President Eisenhower. And even in the recent years before this latest crisis, conflict, climate change and natural disasters had already pushed more internally displaced people and refugee communities to the edge, having to rely on humanitarian aid from WFP and others. It is vital at this critical moment that WFP maintain its food assistance programmes, which offer a lifeline to 87 million vulnerable people in more than 80 countries around the world. WFP’s top priority is to ensure it has the resources in place to meet the food and nutrition needs of the people that so depend on it.

At that time of WFP’s establishment, the United States was producing a surplus of grain. The idea behind creating WFP was to responsibly share that abundance of food with vulnerable countries and communities around the world. Since then, we have innovated and evolved and moved towards food vouchers and direct cash-based assistance, supporting local markets where they already exist and providing hungry families with freedom of choice - in many contexts the most efficient and effective solution. But with global and local markets now disrupted, WFP has had to re-evaluate how we can best deliver assistance where it’s needed most.

As WFP’s Acting Supply Chain Director, John Crisci recently told Axios, "There is enough food, but food and other essential commodities must keep moving. We cannot let this health crisis turn into a food crisis."

This is the crux of the problem we face.

To help tackle these immense challenges, the WFP Innovation Accelerator has been working for the  past five years to identify, support, and scale the best solutions globally to achieve Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 2: Zero Hunger by 2030. While the concept of accelerators, incubators or labs is widespread in the tech industry and private sector, the WFP Innovation Accelerator was pioneering this in the global social impact space - even making it on the Top 10 Most Innovative Companies List of FastCompany 2017.  In 2019 alone, the Accelerator reached 1.4 million people through these innovative programs, utilizing hydroponics, blockchain, artificial intelligence and mobile apps to support refugees, vulnerable host communities and smallholder farmers, amongst other initiatives. Leveraging this experience, we have also recently provided innovation services to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Creating Hope in Conflict: A Humanitarian Grand Challenge, UNICEF,  and our first-ever virtual bootcamp with UNHCR, amongst others. In 2020, now and more than ever, our vision must be even further strategically aligned with the larger humanitarian community, as from the start of this new year and new decade priorities have shifted to accomplishing our collective goals in the face of the immense challenges COVID-19 presents, now and for the foreseeable future.

From the supply chain perspective, for instance, restrictions on global movements, tighter border controls and commercial transport closures mean that the usual routes for humanitarian and health organizations are disrupted. WFP thus needs to ensure its equipment and staff can rapidly reach the areas where they are most needed. As an example, 1.6 billion children and youth – or 91 percent of enrolled learners around the world – are having to stay away from schools and universities due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Partial or country-wide closures of schools have been reported in 51 countries where WFP implements school feeding programmes. This means that more than 12 million children are no longer receiving WFP school meals.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has long been a supporter of WFP’s school meals initiatives. Through the McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program, it has been one of the leading donors and supporters of school meals activities worldwide, since inception 15 years ago. Together with the U.S. and other donors, WFP has now shifted its focus to providing take-home rations, in an effort to maintain continuity for students who depend on school meals, but whose schools are closed indefinitely.

Leveraging innovation to tackle the challenges created by disrupted supply chains and school meals programs specifically, WFP is providing real-time tracking of changes in the areas of food security, health access and markets in vulnerable countries. Data and analysis are visualized through web-based platforms such as Hunger Map LIVE, which was a 2019 WFP Innovation Challenge Winner, and participated in our first-ever U.S.-based (Silicon Valley) innovation bootcamp. Monitoring will be complemented with early warning and security analysis of how the pandemic is impacting food and other vulnerabilities.

Another 2019 Innovation Challenge Winner is School Connect in Burundi, which digitizes school feeding data entry for stock inventory, student attendance, and meal consumption for school feeding programmes to improve supply chain planning and nutritional intake. The web-based solution is being tested in 20 schools in Burundi and will scale up to 820 schools in 2020.

These and other initiatives must be quickly identified and rapidly scaled if we are to make an impact on current food systems, and going forward, be more resilient to not only the shock of COVID-19, but for the next crises inevitably to come.

Bernhard Kowatsch is the Head of the World Food Programme (WFP) Innovation Accelerator in Munich, Germany.

Assisting 86.7 million people in around 83 countries each year, the World Food Programme (WFP) is the leading humanitarian organization saving lives and changing lives, delivering food assistance in emergencies and working with communities to improve nutrition and build resilience.

Established in 2016, the WFP Innovation Accelerator sources, supports and scales high-potential solutions to hunger worldwide. We provide WFP staff, entrepreneurs, start-ups, companies and non-governmental organizations with access to funding, mentorship, hands-on support and WFP operations.

Editor's Note: Agri-Pulse and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs are teaming up to host a monthly column to explore how the US agriculture and food sector can maintain its competitive edge and advance food security in an increasingly integrated and dynamic world.