Accessing Safe Foods During Public Calamities

safe food calamities

When disaster strikes, governments opt for one of two standard orders to the public: Get Out! and Stay Home!

When hurricanes, floods and other forecastable catastrophes occur, evacuation is obviously the best option.

But for those unable to flee, and when other calamities explode – like a global pandemic – staying put is the safest option.

Although our homes are our sanctuaries, they are not necessarily the safest or most comfortable places to spend days or even weeks cut off from the rest of the world.

Families with particular dietary requirements may battle to find nutritious, allergy-friendly foods during a disaster, forced into coping with food insecurity and struggling to meet their specific needs.

But with careful planning, they can come through difficult times with minimal trauma.

Even just a few days of supplies can make it far easier to deal with the distress of the first few days of uncertainty.

Stocking Up for a Few Days

The most crucial item is drinking water.

Each person (and pet) needs at least a gallon of clean water a day, with extra for breastfeeding mothers, and formula packs for bottle-fed babies.

Add to this around 1,500 calories a day per person of shelf-stable food that needs only heating or mixing with boiling water.

Good options are canned and freeze-dried soups, stews, vegetables and fruit.

For emergencies like the COVID-19 lockdown, when the power remains on, a freezer full of food can feed a family easily for a couple of weeks.

But when earthquakes or hurricanes shatter gas pipes and rip away power lines, a well-stocked freezer can preserve food for only about 48 hours, if kept closed, while a refrigerator stays cold for only half a day.

After this, perishables must be thrown away, particularly meat, poultry, fish, eggs and leftovers.

Check use-by dates before opening any packs and inspect all food carefully before cooking.

If anything looks or smells a little odd, discard it immediately.

This is no time to risk the health of your loved ones, when medical care is hard to obtain.

Storing what you eat and eating what you store is the easiest way of building up a couple of weeks’ supply of food items.

Buying a few extra packs of non-perishables (like powdered milk, beans, rice, pasta and freeze-dried meals) builds  up an emergency stockpile in just a few weeks.

By stacking your pantry from the back and eating from the front, you ensure healthy food today with emergency goods for tomorrow that are well within their expiration dates.

Meticulous Hygiene

Washing water is also vital, particularly in a medical crisis when bacteria, germs and viruses run rife.

Washing hands becomes even more important, as well as wiping down surfaces with alcohol or bleach solutions.

With everyone ordered to shelter in place and medical practitioners overextended, domestic hygiene is crucial.

Cans of food and drink should be washed thoroughly with soap and water before storing, and wiped down before opening, not only to get rid of coronavirus, but also germs and bacteria causing other diseases, like leptospirosis.

Root vegetables should be scrubbed and leafy greens left to soak in a mild bleach solution.

If water-mains are broken, save this disinfectant water in buckets, as it’s perfect for swabbing floors and flushing toilets.

A bottle of drinking water and plastic cups in the bathroom ensure that teeth are brushed properly without wasting precious water.

Although not food-related, a few extra packs of hand sanitizer, shower gel, detergent, washing powder, kitchen roll and toilet paper make it easier to prepare meals in a hygienic setting. Admittedly many of these items are tough to come by now.

Food Assistance Programs

Among people with food allergies, access to safe food is even more vital, in order to avoid life-threatening reactions.

Even in normal times, it can be hard for people with particular dietary requirements to find nutritious but affordable meals.

And during a natural disaster like the COVID-19 pandemic, with smaller specialty stores closed and supermarket prices soaring, this challenge may be almost insurmountable, particularly for jobless families living in food deserts.

This situation is being addressed by the USDA through introducing added flexibility to some of its Food and Nutrition Service (FMS) Programs, providing better service with easier access.

USDA Child Nutrition Program

Under the Child Nutrition Program run by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), youngsters under 18 years old receive free meals and snacks through the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP).

This State-administered but federally-funded Program offers free meals to children while schools are closed during the coronavirus pandemic.

Although recipients should typically live in low-income areas, many schools are currently distributing food to children regardless of income eligibility standards.

Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP)

Providing emergency food support for low-income Americans at no cost, this federal Program reaches out to people assisted by food pantries or soup kitchens.

Eligibility is dependent on household income levels, which are decided by each State.

In some areas, people may qualify for this Program if already participating in other income-based food, health or welfare programs run by federal or State governments.

Additional information is available from the website of each State Distributing Agency (SDA).

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)

Focused specifically on low-income pregnant women or people responsible for children under 19 years of age, this initiative generally assists  the unemployed, the under-employed and the about-to-become-unemployed.

Each State distributing these benefits establishes specific eligibility criteria, with further information available from the locations listed on the Office of Family Assistance website.

Women, Infants, and Children (WIC)

This federal program provides nutrition assistance for pregnant, postpartum and breastfeeding women, as well as infants and children up to five years of age.

Eligibility is based on pre-tax income as a percentage of the federal poverty guidelines, with participants at medical risk (confirmed by a healthcare practitioner) due to dietary or medical conditions, including food allergies or other medically-restricted diets.

Additional information is available by location through the USDA Food and Nutrition website.

Food Banks and Soup Kitchens

Although a lifesaver for people facing food insecurity, the resources of these outreach initiatives are often strained during times of crisis.

This makes it particularly hard for them to accommodate people with food allergies or medically restricted diets.

For more information on finding allergy-friendly food banks, check out the Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE) initiative’s website.

Social Safety Net

Well aware that the COVID-19 lockdown has effectively frozen the entire economy, the US government is taking good care of its most vulnerable citizens.

Their input will be vital, as society explores the unknown world on the far side of the pandemic.