World News

It was created as an experiment. Now the World Food Programme sends food to tens of millions of people every year

The World Food Programme, which won the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize on Friday, delivered food to 97 million people last year.

Posted Updated

Rob Picheta
CNN — The World Food Programme, which won the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize on Friday, delivered food to 97 million people last year.

The United Nations agency, created as an experiment in 1961 after a request by US President Dwight Eisenhower, is today one of the world's largest humanitarian organizations.

Its first major mission came in 1962, when an earthquake hit northern Iran and killed 12,000 people. Just months into its existence, the WFP sent survivors 1,500 metric tons of wheat, 270 tons of sugar and 27 tons of tea. The following year, a maiden development mission was launched in Sudan and its first school meals project in Togo was approved.

By 1965, the WFP had proven its value and became a fully-fledged UN agency.

"This is the first time in my life I've been speechless! This is unbelievable," David Beasley, the WFP's free-spoken American executive director, said after hearing of the award.

Beasley, a one-time Republican governor of South Carolina appointed to the WFP post in 2017, was in Niamey, the capital of Niger, when he heard the news.

"It's because of the WFP family. They're out there in the most difficult, complex places in the world, whether it's war, conflict, climate extremes," he said.

The WFP relies on 5,600 trucks, 30 ships and nearly 100 planes to distribute supplies to sites around the world, delivering more than 15 billion rations each year at an estimated average cost per ration of $0.61. It spends much of its time in war zones -- two-thirds of the agency's work is done in conflict-affected areas, with 88 countries benefiting from its work last year.

It has been active in many of the most devastating humanitarian disasters of the past half-century, including the Rwandan genocide, the Kosovo War and the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004.

"Today, WFP is the world's largest humanitarian agency saving lives and changing lives," the organization writes on its website. "When disasters strike, it is quick off the mark and scales up in a heartbeat; when they do not, it works tirelessly to bolster nutrition and food security."

The agency is funded by voluntary donations, and raised a record-breaking $8 billion last year, but is not immune to concerns about reduced global involvement in international programs.

"This is also a call to the international community not to underfund the World Food Programme," Berit Reiss-Andersen, the chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, said after announcing the award on Friday. "This is an obligation, in our mind, of all states of the world to ensure that people are not starving."

The WFP has also warned of the threat to food security posed by the coronavirus pandemic. In April, it said the planet was facing multiple famines of "biblical proportions" in just a matter of months, with the Covid-19 crisis potentially pushing an additional 130 million people to the brink of starvation.

Copyright 2023 by Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.