Securing the food supply chain before the next disaster

Last spring, families scrambled to find infant formula wherever they could — in grocery stores, through online forums and through their local community networks.

The shortage of formula, which is ongoing, was somewhat different from panic buying during the early stages of the pandemic – it was longer, impacted very specific products, and affected the primary food source of an extremely vulnerable population. It was also felt somewhat unevenly from state to state depending on WIC Procurement Practices that occur outside of disaster periods.

These recent incidents are cautionary tales – food supply chains are nimble, to some degree. But when supply chains are disrupted, problems are compounded, inequitably exacerbated, and typically underserved communities can face the greatest challenges.

Food equity is based on the principle of availability and access to healthy, affordable and culturally appropriate foods. The School nutrition standards and related feeding programs are an exception to an otherwise barren landscape of programs that link nutrition to access to feeding programs. Nutrition standards, summer feeding programs and subsidized meals all help feed our children when access to nutrition at home is difficult. More … than 10% of households experience food insecurity in normal times, and many more are pushed into insecurity following a disaster.

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

How can stakeholders support this principle during disasters? During disasters, government entities should continue to focus on the most vulnerable households through traditional feeding programs, such as food distribution sites. However, we recommend that stakeholders consider providing more support to the private sector and upstream nodes, during all phases of emergency management. On a daily basis, these nodes are very essential in supporting an incredible number of people with a culturally appropriate diet; during emergencies, they support normally vulnerable and newly vulnerable households on a scale, and through complex systems and processes, that government entities cannot easily duplicate.

FEMA and emergency management agencies determined that food and water were essential safety rope, one of the essential functions necessary for the functioning of society. However, there are still important learning opportunities for the public sector about how the supply chain actually works. More … than four out of five buyers say they use supermarkets at least quite often, and restaurants are the second largest private sector employer. Although the private sector supports the bulk of our country’s complex food supply chain, there are still no concrete strategies as to how the government can support (or should collaborate with) these major contributors when disasters.

To better support this essential infrastructure during disasters – and ensure that communities most in need receive the assistance they need, government entities and other partners must move towards a more comprehensive food landscape.

One of the challenges is that our food systems are inherently siled, including between agencies tasked with coordinating a range of food security, nutrition and food aid programs. Developing incentives that promote coordination – within and across – during blue skies could help us build a more resilient food supply chain, which would also be beneficial in times of emergency.

During disasters, local to national level emergency management agencies implement only a slight variation of these decentralized structures. Food stakeholders, including non-profits, schools, grocers, restaurants and distributors, fall into a range of groups (known in the emergency management industry as of “emergency support functions”), rather than being lumped together under one overarching umbrella overseeing this essential lifeline. This structure inhibits situational awareness and coordination between pre-existing power systems and ad hoc activities.

Additionally, during disasters, a routine type of formal assistance that is offered to the food supply chain is at the household level through financial resources for the purchase of food through the assistance program. Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as the Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. D-SNAP. This allows newly vulnerable households to spend funds at retailers alongside pre-existing SNAP recipients (approximately one in eight Americans). Pantries are also an important component, but may face limitations in scaling them up to meet demand. Helping households access food through pantries or buy food from stores is not helpful if there are no groceries on the shelves or grocery stores open.

Although the most vulnerable households rely heavily on food pantries, grocery stores, big-box stores, and other retailers to meet their food needs, these and other nodes upstream in the supply chain ( for example, distribution centers and manufacturers) generally do not receive any form of assistance or prioritization during disasters. The lack of consistent support stands in stark contrast to other types of critical infrastructure – such as the utilities, energy and healthcare sectors, which are eligible for risk mitigation grants to make their population and structures more resilient, prioritized for restoration and often receive support to secure resources (e.g. fuel) to execute operations. By increasing synergy between government entities and the private sector, vital actors can respond more quickly and provide support to those who need it most.

Building on this month’s White House conference, we encourage public sector entities to collaborate more meaningfully with the private sector to build a more resilient and equitable disaster supply chain. Engagement should begin with federal stakeholders, as they provide strategy and funding to states and municipalities.

Global tensions are rising, and the frequency and impact of natural disasters are increasing year on year – our communities should not have to wait for the next hurricane, pandemic or food security issue to take targeted action.

Katie Murphy is Senior Director of Business Continuity at C&S Wholesale Grocers, a wholesale grocery supply company in the United States supplying 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 Disaster Preparedness Center to 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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