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The Many Factors Behind Getting Food to People After a Disaster

The Many Factors Behind Getting Food to People After a Disaster

Nutrition, food safety and local norms among many considerations that aid groups weigh before and during disaster response.

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Monday, June 18, 2018 - 16:00

James Gaines, Contributor

(Inside Science) -- In the wake of a natural disaster a cascade of additional problems may emerge, one of the most critical being the lack of food. With local stocks ruined and supply chains either hampered or destroyed, it can be difficult for a person to simply find enough to eat after a disaster.

Because of this threat, many public and private agencies provide post-disaster aid on both local and much larger scales. The United States’ Federal Emergency Management Agency, for instance, says they provided more than 63 million meals and snacks, and millions of gallons of drinkable water to the island of Puerto Rico in the aftermath of 2017’s Hurricane Maria.

However, in the midst of that relief effort, questions began to emerge about what kinds of foods were appropriate after Puerto Rican residents found candy, chips and other snack food in relief packages. So what are the considerations that go into the foods that aid a disaster area? Some of the biggest are nutrition and logistics.

Meats, grains, and vegetables

With the normal food supply disrupted, starvation and malnutrition can become serious threats, especially to children and people recovering from injury or illness. The Center for Disaster Philanthropy, for instance, warns that chronic malnutrition in the wake of a disaster can affect a child’s brain development.

Thus, providing adequate nutrition is important. There is no one guide for nutrition, but the Sphere Project, a humanitarian initiative, recommends 2,100 calories per day for an adult (with at least a certain amount of those calories coming from protein and fat) and adequate levels of micronutrients such as vitamin A and iron. FEMA has their own guidelines, which require the contractors who supply the agency with the meals to meet certain calorie counts. In addition, they require contractors to not exceed guidelines for certain nutrients like sodium and saturated fat.

This is where the candy problem comes in. Uriyoán Colón-Ramos, a public health nutrition investigator at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., spent time in a federal aid distribution center in Puerto Rico’s Barranquitas municipality. She said that almost 10 percent of the unique food items delivered may have been snack items like candy and chips, and that much of the food exceeded dietary recommendations on sodium, added sugar and saturated fat.

While it’s possible for an occasional snack to be part of a normal diet or to provide some comfort during an emergency, Ramos said that if that’s the official motivation for including snack food in aid packages, she’d like to see more scientific evidence backing it up.

"I think the main issue is how are these decisions of what is being provided -- how are those decisions being made?” said Ramos. "And how can we better support those decisions so that they respond to the actual nutritional needs of the population?"

In addition to meeting nutritional needs, organizations may also try to meet dietary preferences and restrictions as well.

“We need to provide a lot of meals to a lot of people, but we also need to be culturally sensitive, making sure we’re meeting the needs of the community,” said Laurynn Myers, a program manager at the Red Cross based in Hudson, New York.

They, like FEMA, help organize and distribute food to communities hit by disaster. For such charity-based efforts, meeting the community’s needs might mean matching local cuisine, including meals suitable for people living with medical conditions such as diabetes, and including halal, kosher or vegetarian meals.

“It's really, really important to us that if there's specialized individual needs, that we're taking those into consideration," said Myers.

Hot, fresh, and canned

In addition to planning for what types of nutrients and calories to provide, food aid organizations also need to consider what form food aid should take. Hot meals? Canned goods? Local conditions, transportation conundrums and the speed at which the food needs to be mobilized can all affect what is best to provide.

For example, relief agencies like FEMA may require contractors to keep a certain amount of so-called shelf-stable food warehoused and ready to go, so that they don’t have to wait for manufacturing to get up to speed after a disaster hits. Another factor? Power, or the lack of it.

"The most important factors in a domestic response are power and fuel,” said Jarrod Goentzel, director of the MIT Humanitarian Supply Chain Lab.

The lab studies how to better integrate supply chains and the private sector into disaster relief. Electricity might mean better communication, storage and transportation, which make fresher food more easily distributed.

As infrastructure is restored, normal supply chains can start to come back in. Even then, agencies may still be able to help provide food benefits through programs like Disaster SNAP benefits, which provides funding to people who might be strapped for cash during the repair and rebuild process. It can also give local stores, who may have also been hit by the disaster, an injection of funding.

"Disaster SNAP can help needy people get access to the nutrition that they need after a disaster, but it also brings in federal dollars that flow through the grocery retailers,” said Ellen Vollinger, SNAP director at the Food Research and Action Center in Washington, D.C.

Ultimately, said Goentzel, the goal of any disaster relief effort is to get the normal market supply chain working again.

"The best way to scale up food supply after a disaster is to get stores open and shelves full,” said Goentzel.

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Portrait of writer James Gaines

James Gaines (@the_jmgaines) is a freelance science journalist in Seattle, Washington. His work has appeared in outlets such as Nature, LiveScience, GOOD, Upworthy, and Atlas Obscura. He once had an alligator snapping turtle as a pet for about two hours.