The U.S. is often viewed as a nation of abundance, yet paradoxically, one in ten households were “food insecure” in 2019, meaning that they struggle to get the proper nutrition to keep their family healthy.CS_77
These challenges are not borne equally. Rates of food insecurity were nearly three times higher for low-income and single mother-headed households and nearly twice as high for Black and Latino households than for White households.
Early research has found a doubling of the average food insecurity rate across the U.S. linked to the COVID-19 pandemic, with even greater increases among vulnerable populations.CS_78, CS_79, CS_80, CS_81 Disruptive events, whether climate-related disasters or the COVID-19 pandemic, can exacerbate existing barriers to securing healthy food for vulnerable populations and further widen food and health disparities.CS_82
Food insecurity has clear health implications. Adults who are food-insecure may be at an increased risk of health problems, including obesity, heart disease, diabetes, depression, and increased susceptibility to COVID-19.CS_83, CS_84, CS_85 Food insecurity also puts children at a higher risk of asthma, anemia, and obesity, as well as behavioral, developmental, and emotional problems.CS_83, CS_86
Climate change is anticipated to worsen existing food insecurity as climate-related disasters, such as drought and flooding, become more frequent and severe and as agricultural pests become more persistent.CS_72, CS_87 In 2019, there were fourteen climate-related disasters within the U.S. that each caused over a billion dollars in damages.CS_52
Historic floods in the Midwest destroyed millions of acres of agriculture and caused widespread infrastructure damage (see the Case Study). In addition, an above-normal Atlantic hurricane season inundated coastlines with unprecedented rainfall, high winds, and storm surge; and wildfires in California and Alaska caused widespread energy disruptions, compromising the health and well-being of residents.CS_52
Disasters such as these threaten all aspects of food production, distribution, and accessibility, with subsequent impacts for affordability that can further exacerbate food insecurity for vulnerable populations. When food is not consumed where it is produced, it must be processed, stored, transported, and then sold or donated. These processes involve complex interdependent, and at times, international systems. Roads, bridges, warehouses, airports, energy grids, and other transportation or telecommunication infrastructure are at risk of direct damage from climate change, severely disrupting the food system as a whole.CS_88, CS_89
For example, following the 2019 floods in the Central states, the flood waters caused more than forty state and federal highways to close, hydroelectric dams to be breached, and threatened nuclear power stations (see Case Study).CS_90, CS_91 These disturbances limited the movement and storage of goods throughout the region and prevented consumers from accessing food sources.CS_91, CS_92 In the midst of an extreme fire season in California that same year, utility providers turned off power to millions of homes and businesses, plunging low-income households into hunger and financial crisis as their food spoiled.CS_93
Climate disasters can lead to acute food insecurity in the short-term and exacerbate chronic food insecurity in the long-term (see Table 1). Populations already struggling from chronic insecurity, or those who are only marginally food secure, are particularly vulnerable to the socioeconomic impacts of disasters, such as loss of livelihood, rising food prices, forced migration, loss of social support, and health-related impacts. Data from the aftermath of 2019 disasters is still scarce, but the impacts from previous disasters that are similar in nature are well documented.
For example, nearly five years after Hurricane Katrina, many of the households heavily impacted by the hurricane in Louisiana and Mississippi remained food insecure. This was especially true for women, Black households, and those living with chronic illness, mental health issues, or low social support.CS_94 Similar impacts were demonstrated in New York City following Hurricane Sandy, where one-third of surveyed households in the heavily impacted Rockaway Peninsula reported difficulty obtaining food due to economic hardship, disruption of public transportation, and long-term closure of grocery stores months after the storm.CS_95
In the era of complex disasters, community-level resilience is essential, as federal relief is often too slow and under-equipped to meet the immediate needs of individuals and households. A growing number of U.S. cities are working to protect and improve food security in the aftermath of climate-related disasters and help build climate-resilient local and regional food systems.
For example, officials from Baltimore, Maryland worked with researchers at the Johns Hopkins University in 2017 to assess the resilience of the city’s food supply to climate-related disruptions and to identify ways to support communities at risk of experiencing food insecurity both before and after disasters.CS_96 This is a wonderful example of the power of academic and public partnerships.
Baltimore also designated a food liaison to sit within the Office of Emergency Management during crises. This city received funding from FEMA to coordinate a collaborative regional food and water resilience plan with surrounding jurisdictions. When COVID-19 spread to Baltimore in early 2020 — closing schools and many businesses — the city quickly put its food resilience planning into action and convened a group of food assistance stakeholders to better coordinate responses supporting food access for residents.
Local and state governments across the country can take similar steps to incorporate food insecurity risk analysis and adaptive planning into emergency management and climate adaptation planning (see Table 2). Local governments and community partners can ensure food assistance programs provide well-balanced meals and are targeted to reach vulnerable individuals and communities.
It is critical to support federal and state assistance programs during non-disaster times, such as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), Women, Infants and Children (WIC), and school lunches. As an example, SNAP and WIC services have been pathways to try to meet the rise in food insecurity during the pandemic, and many schools have attempted to continue to provide meals to children most in need.CS_97, CS_98 Thus, ongoing support can ensure that these programs are even more adaptable, optimally funded, and able to be rapidly mobilized during a disaster of any kind, thus reducing vulnerability and supporting food security in the short- and long-term.
Simultaneously, addressing food insecurity in the wake of disasters goes hand in hand with combating the root causes of food insecurity and health disparities, such as poverty and food deserts.CS_99 Structural racism is also deeply interconnected through complex pathways, including through the creation of disadvantaged social and economic factors that contribute to food insecurity.CS_100 Yet, even when these factors are removed, some evidence suggests food insecurity remains for people of color, highlighting the need for further research.CS_100 Finally, applying a food systems approach to food security after disasters, such as production of and access to healthy foods, and supporting diverse, local, and regional agriculture, is an important long-term strategy with clear benefits for both health and climate change.