Food and Nutrition in Emergencies


The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) Article 25(1) stipulates, “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food…”

Kofi does work in the home and on the farm to support his wife and children. Credit: Plan Canada

Responding to Food Shortages

The following factors may contribute to an emergency with food shortages: a rapid or slow-onset natural disaster such as floods, droughts and major storms; armed conflict or civil unrest, which often forcibly displaces many people; a disruption in the distribution of emergency food items to affected populations; HIV/AIDS, since those affected are often unable to work and thus sustain their livelihoods and that of their families; extreme poverty of particular segments in populations.

In humanitarian emergencies where there are food shortages, assistance in this regard does not only consist of delivering food to affected populations, but also ensuring that the food that is provided is nutritionally appropriate, addresses context-specific problems, and meets minimum energy, protein and fat requirements for survival and light physical activity. Many factors must be taken into consideration, including supporting local farmers and businesses as much as possible, and ensuring the delivered food reaches the people most in need.

Even after rations are established for particular emergencies, monitoring mechanisms must also be established to determine their adequacy, given often rapidly changing circumstances in emergencies and the needs of vulnerable sub-groups, such as children, pregnant and lactating women, and elderly people. The average energy provided to each person in emergencies is 2100 kcal, according to the guidelines on Food & Nutrition Needs in Emergencies.


Post-Emergency Phase

After a situation has somewhat stabilized, it is important for agencies to estimate food and nutritional needs in the post-emergency phase. This process can be quite complex since it involves an analysis of the resources and access particular populations have to meet to their own needs in this regard. Like other elements of a humanitarian response, the delivery of nutritionally appropriate food items to populations in need requires coordination between different participating agencies, in order to ensure no work is duplicated and that the priority is focused on meeting the greatest needs of the most vulnerable.

Food aid should be short-term and in response to an emergency such as the one mentioned above. Long-term food aid not only is expensive and creates dependency, but it also negatively affects local agricultural production and thus the local economy. Assistance should shift as soon as possible after a disaster from direct food aid to more long-term development programs that promote food security in affected communities.