Hurricane season brings on more challenges than storm surge, devastating winds and the displacement of families. It also carries a hidden worry: food insecurity.
In 2021, more than 2 million Floridians, including 1 in 7 children, were considered food insecure. The effects of food insecurity on families and children are well documented, including poor nutrition and damage to their mental health. The risk only grows when funds to buy food are limited in the wake of a disaster while stores and food banks struggle to fill their shelves.
Last fall, Hurricane Ian was a large and powerful Category 4. The hurricane devastated central and southwest Florida cities — significant flooding and heavy winds damaged schools, homes, stores and roads. It affected the operations of food suppliers as they faced impassable conditions trying to deliver food products to their restaurant and retail customers.
The same is true for food banks across Florida, which rely on food deliveries to serve families in need, particularly following natural disasters. According to Feeding America, food banks across the state had to promptly assess the damage to their facilities immediately after last year’s Hurricane Ian, to gauge what their communities needed. Many experts were forecasting that $20 billion in revenue could be at risk regarding food supply chain interruptions to retail, manufacturing, agriculture and distribution channels in Florida, thus creating food insecurity and impacting food banks.
At the same time, natural disasters can take a heavy toll on families’ pocketbooks, especially low-income families. With workplaces closed, many workers lose wages, if not their jobs entirely. Moreover, given that food prices have risen over the last year, losing out on crucial income during disasters will only hit harder this year.
However, it does not have to be this way. Hunger is, at the root, a moral and political issue that requires solutions before catastrophes happen. We know that hurricane season is once again upon us — let us not waste time and prepare to serve the people of Florida should disaster strike.
At the federal level, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, is a program with dedicated resources and time to support disaster survivors. FEMA has several individual assistance programs that helps disaster survivors and allows them to decide what kind of aid would serve them best, such as emergency food and water that could be distributed them directly.
Nevertheless, this year, FEMA is 35% short of its staffing needs, leaving it more than 6,000 employees shy of what it requires to confront modern demands. This is deeply concerning, given the overwhelming need for FEMA assistance after the impacts of hurricanes. We need programs like FEMA to ensure they have adequate staffing before disaster strikes, or individuals will be left without the aid they desperately need.
As someone born on the Mississippi coast and growing up approximately 45 minutes outside of New Orleans, I remember how impactful FEMA was after Hurricane Katrina. The lack of housing and food options for my family made life incredibly challenging during what we had initially thought would be an average hurricane season. FEMA assistance provided food sites for our family, neighbors, and many in the surrounding cities to receive a meal, even if they were the MRE used by the military.
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With FEMA struggling to fill its ranks, Floridians should also look out for each other. We can volunteer our time to help through social channels. We can pressure our legislators to strengthen our disaster Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) program. Lastly, we should encourage the support of programs such as Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida, Feeding Tampa and Feeding America through donations that can help us prepare for Hurricane Season this year and be ready for any impacts on food insecurity.
Carvis C. Durr is a graduate teaching associate and doctoral student at the University of Central Florida. He is a member of the Scholars Strategy Network.