Food in the Global Welfare State

Spring 2023

This conference is closed to the public.

The global surge in food prices in 2007–2008 was a dramatic indicator of how far the globalization of food markets has developed. The price of wheat, soybeans, rice, and corn doubled over that two-year period, leading to food protests and riots in more than thirty countries.

With an estimated one billion people lacking secure access to food, the international food aid regime proved unable to address the crisis, prompting new policy debates over how to promote agricultural production in developing countries and reform the international food aid system. Compared to the modest growth in foreign aid, a more significant response to the crisis was the rapid expansion of national food welfare programs, with more than thirty countries expanding food distribution programs, another dozen significantly increasing their food subsidy programs, and forty-four countries regulating domestic food prices. This policy response flew in the face of an international campaign to reform and reduce consumer subsidies waged by the IMF and World Bank since the 1980s and 1990s.

The crisis highlighted the fact that welfare programs which distribute or subsidize food are an important element of social policy in most countries in the world. Despite their ubiquity, however, such programs have not received anywhere near the scholarly attention that other welfare programs have received. This oversight may make some sense in the study of welfare in western Europe and other advanced industrial countries, where cash welfare programs comprise the most important element of the welfare state. But ignoring food welfare in communist and developing countries often means overlooking the largest part of their welfare states that affects more people and redistributes more resources than their cash welfare programs.

To date, most of the research on food welfare has been conducted by economists and other policy experts seeking to reform the programs. While these policy outcomes are obviously important, existing studies do not account for the resilience of food welfare in many countries, nor the wide variation in reforms over the last thirty years. The few historians, political scientists, and sociologists who have examined food welfare have undertaken single-country case studies or more rarely, regional surveys of these programs. Their research suggests that the politics of food welfare are considerably more complicated than cash welfare programs, involving more social groups and interests (such as farmers and retailers), and connecting to a wider range of policy arenas, including agricultural policy, trade policy, and foreign aid. We bring these scholars together in an interdisciplinary conference designed to compare policies across countries and regions. In addition, we want to focus squarely on the politics that underlie food welfare, exploring why particular programs were adopted, how and why they have been sustained or expanded, and how they have been reformed.

Note: This conference was originally scheduled for Spring 2020, but was delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

See also: Conferences, 2023


Linda Cook

Professor of Political Science and of Slavic Studies, Brown University.


Nara Dillon

Senior Lecturer on Government, Department of Government, Harvard University.