Secure the food supply chain before the next disaster strikes

Last spring, families looked for baby formula everywhere — at grocery stores, through online forums, and through their local community networks.

The still-persistent food shortages were somewhat different from panic buying in the early stages of the pandemic — they lasted longer, impacted very specific produce, and impacted the main source of food for an extremely vulnerable population. It was also felt to be somewhat inconsistent from state to state based on WIC procurement practices that occur outside of disaster times.

These recent incidents are cautionary tales — food supply chains are agile to a degree. But when supply chains are disrupted, problems worsen, injustice is exacerbated, and typically underserved communities can experience the greatest challenges.

Food justice is based on the principle of availability and access to healthy, affordable and culturally appropriate food. School nutrition standards and related nutrition programs represent an exception in an otherwise barren landscape of programs that bridge nutrition and access to nutrition programs. Nutritional standards, summer feeding programs, and subsidized meals all help keep our children fed when access to food at home is difficult. More than 10 percent of households are food insecure in normal times, and many more are pushed into insecurity after a disaster.

Later this month, the Biden administration will convene the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health, which marks the first time in over 50 years that the White House has convened an event to transform food policy, including issues of access and inequality . This represents an important opportunity to build resilience and equity in food security before, during and after disasters.

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How can stakeholders support this principle in the event of a disaster? During disasters, government agencies should continue to focus on the most vulnerable households through traditional feeding programs such as food dispensaries. However, we advocate that at all stages of emergency management, stakeholders should consider providing more support to the private sector and upstream nodes. In everyday life, these hubs are extremely important in supporting an incredible number of people with culturally appropriate food. In emergencies, they typically support vulnerable and newly vulnerable households at a scale and through complex systems and processes that government agencies cannot readily duplicate.

FEMA and disaster management agencies have identified food and water as critical lifelines, one of the core functions required for society to function. However, there are still significant learning opportunities for the public sector on how the supply chain actually works. More than four in five shoppers say they visit supermarkets at least fairly often, and restaurants are the country’s second largest private employer. Although the private sector supports most of our country’s complex food supply chain, there are still no concrete strategies for how the government can support (or work with) these key players in disasters.

To better support this critical infrastructure during disasters and ensure the communities that need it most get the assistance they need, government agencies and other partners must shift to supporting a broader food landscape.

One of the challenges is that our food systems are inherently siled, including across agencies responsible for coordinating a range of food safety, nutrition and nutritional assistance programmes. Developing incentives that encourage coordination – within and between countries – under blue skies could help us build a more resilient food supply chain that would also bring benefits in emergencies.

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In the event of a disaster, civil protection authorities from the local to the national level implement only a minor variation of these decentralized structures. Food stakeholders, including nonprofits, schools, grocers, restaurants, and retailers, are dispersed across a number of groups (known in the emergency management industry as “emergency support functions”) rather than under one comprehensive umbrella that oversees this critical lifeline. This structure inhibits situational awareness and coordination between pre-existing feeding systems and ad hoc activities.

In addition, a routine form of formal household-level assistance is offered to the food supply chain during disasters through food purchase funds through the Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as D-SNAP. This allows newly vulnerable households to spend at retailers alongside existing SNAP beneficiaries (roughly one in eight Americans). Food supplies are also an important component, but may face limitations when scaling to meet demand. It is not helpful to help households access groceries through pantries or buy groceries from stores when no groceries are on the shelves or grocery stores are open.

Although the most vulnerable households rely heavily on grocery stores, grocery stores, large grocery stores, and other retailers to meet their grocery needs, these and other upstream nodes in the supply chain (e.g., distribution centers and manufacturers) typically do not receive any form of Disaster support or prioritization. The lack of consistent support is in stark contrast to other types of critical infrastructure – like the utilities, energy and healthcare sectors, which are eligible for hazard mitigation grants to make their populations and structures more resilient, which are prioritized for recovery and often receive assistance securing resources (e.g. fuel) for operations. Increased synergies between government agencies and the private sector will enable lifeline stakeholders to respond more quickly and support those who need it most.

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Building on this month’s White House conference, we encourage public authorities to work more meaningfully with the private sector to build a more resilient and equitable supply chain in the event of disasters. Engagement must start with federal stakeholders as they provide strategy and funding for states and local governments.

With global tensions rising, and the frequency and impact of natural disasters growing year on year, our communities shouldn’t have to wait for the next hurricane, pandemic, or food safety issue to take targeted action.

Katie Murphy is Senior Manager of Business Continuity at C&S Wholesale Grocers, Inc US wholesale grocery company serving more than 7,700 independent supermarkets, chain stores, military bases and institutions with over 100,000 different products. Jeff Schlegelmilch is the Director of National Center for Disaster Risk Reduction In the Columbia Climate School. He is also the author of Columbia University Press’s Rethinking Readiness: A Brief Guide to Twenty-First-Century Megadisasters.

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