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What can we do to ensure food security in the context of COVID-19?

This question was posted the COVID-19 and nutrition programming forum area and has 1 replies.

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GTAM Wasting TWG

Emergency Nutrition Network

Frequent user

9 Sep 2020, 16:03

Question submitted to the prevention workstream of the Wasting and Risk TWG. 

What can we do to ensure food security in the context of COVID-19? Is there research from other disasters on the weakest links in the food supply/ demand chain for different types and lengths of disasters, and appropriate policy responses and interventions to minimise nutritional impact?

GTAM Wasting TWG

Emergency Nutrition Network

Frequent user

9 Sep 2020, 16:05

COVID-19 pandemic has impacted both food supply and demand. On the supply side, disruptions to agricultural production are limiting food access and availability. Restrictions on movement and gatherings are hampering planting and harvesting, thus hindering food supply. On the demand side, a loss of purchasing power by a decrease in income could change people’s eating patterns, resulting in poorer nutrition. Panic food purchases could break the supply chain and cause spikes in prices. In addition, supply chain and trade disruptions are limiting people’s access to sufficient and diverse nutritious food, especially in countries already affected by food insecurity. More specifically, trade restrictions on staple foods (e.g. rice and wheat) drive up prices, particularly for net food-importing countries. As governments respond to COVID-19, it is important to conduct market analyses and assessments in order to provide timely context-specific responses.

In order to support food security, countries must limit disruptions in the food supply chain and food production. FAO advises countries to:

  • Meet the immediate food needs of vulnerable populations (e.g. scale up nutritional support, support prevention and treatment of acute malnutrition, adjust school meal programmes for continuity even when schools are shut, etc.)
  • Boost social protection programmes (e.g. increase the amount of cash transfers, providing complementary entitlements to offset loss of income by small-scale producers, enabling mobile payment systems, etc.)
  • Gain efficiencies and try to reduce trade-related costs (e.g. not imposing measures that would restrict trade and mobility of commodities, resolve logistics bottlenecks, review trade and policy options and their likely impacts, reducing food waste and losses, etc.)

Below is a non-exhaustive list of interventions that would contribute to food security and minimise the negative nutritional impact of the pandemic in the short, medium and long term:

Short term interventions: national and humanitarian responses to COVID-19 should focus on health systems, food systems, social protection, supply chains and food relief. Where food baskets are supplied to people in need, fortified foods must be included. To protect the newest generation, interventions targeting the first 1000 days of life must ensure that women of reproductive age, and pregnant and breastfeeding women, consume sufficient quantities of iron and folic acid by providing fortified foods, micronutrient powders or supplements. Infants and young children from 6 months of age must be provided with rich nutrient dense safe foods while they remain breastfed. Food distribution is a must in context where entire households cannot access or afford food. The risks of contamination related to food distribution crowding should be carefully considered in each context and protective measures (infection prevention and control - IPC) should be put in place. Key recommendations from the IASC on food distribution in the context of COVID-19:

  • Organise and clearly mark the allocated spaces at the distribution site
  • Organise rations ahead of the scheduled distribution
  • Do not allow crowding around the distribution point
  • Facilitate individual health screening
  • Ensure hygiene and social distancing measures
  • Manage the flow of traffic at the distribution site

In addition, to minimise this risk while still meeting the needs of the population, food distribution interventions could be organised every 2-3 months instead of monthly, providing enough food supplies to households until the next food distribution day. Although reducing the frequency of food distributions is expected to reduce the risk of COVID-19 cross infection, logistic and security aspects related to the increased amount of food supplies to be handled at once (e.g. increased means for transport and storage of food, recipients’ capacity to transport and store food, risk of robbery or looting, etc.), must be carefully considered. If movement restrictions allow it, consider decentralising food distributions to limit travel and crowding. Food distributions should be adapted to the evolving needs of the population in the catchment area (e.g. review of targeting). In contexts where post distribution monitoring can be conducted, the potential longer-term effect of food distribution on markets should be assessed.

Medium term interventions: to ensure populations have a sustained supply of micronutrient-rich foods, governments should work with multiple partners, including the private sector where feasible, to produce fortified foods. Raising nutrition awareness among consumers will be crucial to ensuring consumption of these foods. Food vehicles for fortification should be chosen appropriately to the local context (e.g. rice, maize, wheat flour, edible oils, salt, dairy product, etc.). Additionally, smallholder farmers should be supported to plant fast-growing varieties of nutrient-enriched crops. Value chains must be established for farmers and artisanal producers of fortified foods to strengthen local food supply chains and livelihoods.

Long term interventions: the long-term approach should lead to increased dietary diversity through access to, and affordability of, a variety of locally produced nutritious foods. It is expected that vegetable production could become a lot more local in the long run. However, local production of staples (e.g. rice, maize, etc.), meat, which are foods that get transferred the most globally, would be more difficult. Improving inter-regional trade, which will result in shorter food chains, will create more markets for farmers and improve access to both inputs (e.g. seeds, fertilisers, etc.) and outputs (i.e. food products). Local or regional production of climate smart and drought resistant nutrient-enriched crops should be considered.

Initial concentration of COVID-19 tends to be in densely populated areas, with those living in urban slums some of the most exposed and hardest hit from income loss. Urban households are highly dependent on markets for income opportunities and essential food and non-food items, while markets often depend on regional and international trade for their produce – all of which COVID-19 mitigation measures would render impossible. When markets are tight, prices are sensitive to shocks such as a bad harvest or supply disruptions such as is being seen with COVID-19. High prices strain families’ capacities to afford nutritious food from the market and to absorb shocks, resorting to negative coping strategies. It is crucial to closely monitor food insecurity and poverty levels, especially in the biggest and most densely populated urban areas in sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America. The creation of an urban-focused food security task force to consolidate monitoring and response capacities for mitigating economic impacts in densely populated areas of developing countries should be considered.

The 2008 financial crisis, in which reduced income and uncertainty made people spend less, resulting in shrinking demand, triggered a reduction in sales, therefore in production. Economic slowdowns can raise hunger levels. Quarantines, panic and restrictions on movement led to labour shortages during harvest while impeding farmers to bring their products to market during the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone (2014-2016). A recent study (Kodish et al., 2019), looking at the impact of Ebola outbreak on the nutrition sector in Sierra Leona suggests that the outbreak contributed to disruptions across the food value chain which was deemed broken. The outbreak and its mitigating measures had direct and indirect effects on agricultural production, storage, processing, distribution, transport, trade, and retailing, as well as a negative effect on food security, nutrition and infant and young child feeding practices. 

The Ebola outbreak (2018-2020) in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo disrupted food production and supplies in a context already dependant on humanitarian aid. Ebola outbreak, conflict and displacement led to exacerbated humanitarian food assistance needs for the affected population. Those are examples of financial and health crises becoming food and nutrition crises. As the COVID-19 pandemic evolves, food insecurity coupled with disrupted health systems could trigger an increase in levels of acute malnutrition and maternal and under five child mortality as predicted by a modelling study published on the Lancet (Roberton et al., 2020).

Some measures that could be considered across the key pillars of food security are:


Stabilise access to food by supporting household production and purchasing power through in-kind distributions and cash/voucher transfers, helping the most vulnerable families to meet critical needs without resorting to selling off livelihood assets. Where possible, scale up social protection systems, especially in hard-to-reach rural areas and for the most marginalized sectors of society.


To maintain and expand food availability for the most vulnerable populations, support local markets, safeguard agricultural and livestock production and ensure continuous inputs are provided. This will help to maintain food supply chains between rural, peri-urban, and urban areas and within and between countries.


Establish and maintain healthy and hygienic food production and consumption during the COVID-19 pandemic. While no foods or supplements can prevent COVID-19 infection, a nutritious diet rich in whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables and some animal products is key for supporting a strong immune system.


To ensure the stability of food supply chains and keep households afloat, gender-sensitive, climate-smart, sustainable agricultural recovery strategies must be implemented in rural areas, while particular attention should be paid to supporting the hundreds of millions of informal workers and those living in densely populated urban areas.

Crises that restrict movement, like COVID-19, disrupt all aspects of the food supply and demand chain. Some aspects are more disrupted than others and the dynamics change as the crisis progresses. Transportation is one aspect of the supply side that is often affected; getting food from the production site to where it is needed with border closures and movement restriction is a challenge. Affordability is another frequently disrupted aspect of the demand side. Lockdowns increases levels of unemployment, poverty and lost livelihoods making healthy diets even more unaffordable especially for the poor and most vulnerable population. They can also cause temporary food shortages that will increase prices, further limiting the affordability of healthy diets. The focus of mitigating strategies should be on facilitating access to nutritious diets to affected families especially to the most vulnerable groups within them. To avoid spike in food prices and allow food flow, trade channels must stay open and both exporters and importers of foods should agree not to impose trade barriers. Export restrictions (e.g. export taxes and export bans) should be lifted, while reducing tariffs to facilitate import.

Improved global, regional and national coordination across sectors and actors is crucial, including comprehensive humanitarian responses and joint Cluster strategies (Health/Nutrition/Food security/Protection/WASH).

These recommendations should be adapted to the context and national policies.

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