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By Christian Maino Vieytes, Doctoral Student, Division of Nutritional Sciences, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Obtaining food amid a natural or man-made disaster can be an unsettling thought. I believe that we can all recount the early days of the current pandemic and the run on the supermarkets that we witnessed. I can speak for myself, and I am sure for many of you when I say that the sight of empty grocery store shelves evoked a sense of panic in me. Fortunately, due to the nature of the virus, food systems, and the organizational schemes that govern those systems in the United States, we avoided widespread hunger.  (1).


Food has always been a central dilemma in the face of environmental or human catastrophe. There are widespread famines that have taken place in history as a result of any of those two instigators. Whenever a natural disaster occurs, “food security” becomes a heightened issue. Food insecurity is especially the case for “vulnerable” populations: the elderly, pregnant women, and those with underlying medical conditions (2,3). Consequently, humans, industries, organizations, and governments have learned the safeguards necessary to prevent further famine and nutrition-related catastrophes from ensuing. In the face of starvation or nutritional deficiency, those affected by a disaster may develop nutrition-related health issues, highlighting the importance of adequate preparation (4,5).


In the same manner that we can prevent diseases by introducing measures to our diets and lifestyles conducive to a healthy body, proper planning can lower the likelihood of having a widespread nutrition-based disaster or famine that follows some other natural disaster (6). Planning is implemented at all levels of the hierarchy by which our society organizes itself. For instance, at the government level, several nations have emergency plans and stockpiles for use in times of crisis (7). In the United States, disaster relief is coordinated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

How You Can Prepare

Despite the measures taken by governments to supply aid and organize during a natural or human-made disaster, Individuals can take steps to ensure that you and your family are prepared for the next time disaster strikes (8,9).

Prepare an emergency food supply

When stockpiling foods, the focus should be on calories, nutrition, and shelf life. Given that we may be unsure about the length or extent of a disaster, we may not know with accuracy when the community food supply will be accessible again. Therefore, it is imperative that the foods we store have enough calories to sustain us through the period and not perish. Canned foods (especially canned fruits, beans, and vegetables) are great additions to ensure you obtain nutrients necessary for your body to function properly. Items such as peanut butter or other nut butters can provide nutrition along with a high amount of calories to sustain an individual. Frozen proteins (fish, poultry, or other meats) may be good options for your stockpile since fresh varieties of those products are perishable. Research on emergency preparedness has highlighted that the optimal foods for stockpiling include: dry cereals, nuts, dried fruits, grains, and legumes, whereas the least optimal foods are those that perish quickly (e.g., fresh milk or meats) (10).

If the electricity falters, the food supply inside the refrigerator and freezer should be consumed first. Lastly, certain nutrient supplements (e.g., Vitamin C or Vitamin D) can be a part of your stockpile if there is a risk of becoming deficient in certain vitamins or minerals after a prolonged time.


The critical nutrient our bodies need, day in and day out, is water. On average, a human needs roughly a half-gallon of water per day to satisfy their requirements. The amount demanded depends on several factors such as body size, activity levels, and ambient temperature. Moreover, it is unclear if a natural disaster will impact the water supply. Harboring a stockpile of bottled water is an excellent way to stay prepared. If water becomes a scarce resource, it is critical to minimize activity, avoid salty foods, and stay in a cool place. If a bottled water supply is not available, other methods for treating water to rid it of microbial contaminants include boiling, chlorination, and distillation.

In general, FEMA recommends that your stockpile contain enough food and water for at least 3-5 days.


In summary, there are many steps we can take to protect the nutritional well-being of ourselves and our families during a natural disaster. As we encountered, the critical point is to prepare well in advance of the next disaster. Stockpiling the right foods is imperative, especially if we have or live with individuals who are considered part of the vulnerable population. In essence, the focus should be on high-calorie, nutritious, and non-perishable items. This post omits additional key points that are crucial when preparing for a disaster and when consuming your emergency stockpile. The United States Department of Homeland Security developed the Ready Campaign, a public service campaign that educates and empowers Americans with the tools to prepare for and respond to emergencies, provides excellent educational materials on maintaining an emergency food supply. The links to these resources will be provided below and are highly recommended as additional reading.

The Ready Campaign

Recommended Supplies List



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