Lingering Effects: the Recession and Emergency Food Distribution During Disasters

December 13th, 2010 by CHHS RAs

By Rianna Brown
CHHS Research Assistant, fall 2010

Did you know the recession is over? A few short months ago we learned that the nation's recession, one of the most severe economic crises since the Great Depression, was finally over. In fact, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, it ended way back in June 2009. This was certainly welcomed news – a sign that the sun would soon be emerging from an otherwise gloomy sky. But, before the celebrations could even begin, reality set in.

Experts subsequently warned that months, possibly years, of hard economic times likely still lie ahead. The nation's unemployment rate, which neared 9% during the recession, continued to increase in its aftermath. At the same time, more and more families continued to feel the effects of this delayed labor market recovery. According to Census data, one in seven Americans lived in poverty in 2009. For the first time in more than 20 years, the number of people without health insurance increased, from 255.1 million in 2008 to 253.6 million in 2009.

It comes as no surprise that during these tough economic times, an increasing number of families, unable to afford adequate food, are turning to food and nutrition programs for assistance. The number of individuals seeking food assistance reached record levels during the recession and shows no sign of decline. The nation's economic climate is a cause for much concern, especially within the preparedness community.

FEMA recommends that people stock enough food to feed their families for at least three days in the event of an emergency. This is particularly important when an emergency occurrence disrupts the food supply or prevents individuals from leaving the home to obtain needed resources and assistance. Those who rely on food assistance are especially vulnerable during such emergencies because they likely will not have an adequate supply of food in their homes. Thus, there is a critical need for the development of strategies to provide low-income individuals with emergency food supplies both before and during these emergencies.

Emergency planners in a number of jurisdictions have begun to examine this issue. The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture recently initiated a project focused on improving the state's emergency food distribution systems. The Department conducted several focus group meetings which brought together key community stakeholders and helped to identify tools for addressing the nutrition needs of some of the most vulnerable populations within the state. Such efforts are essential and must be replicated throughout the country.

As emergency planners begin to explore ways to improve emergency food assistance and distribution, there are several important questions to consider:


  1. Who are likely community partners – what organizations currently provide food assistance to low income communities?
  2. Have these organizations begun to plan for such emergencies – do they have food reserves?
  3. Are there procedures in place to ensure that these organizations are able to continue their operations during emergencies?
  4. What resources need to be available during such emergencies?

By pulling together key stakeholders and considering these questions, among others, communities can begin developing emergency food distribution plans. They can identify those populations most in need and strategize about ways to best reach them. Though this is just one step in the process of improving preparedness, it is well worth the investment.



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