This post is Part IV of a five-part series discussing the many ways that violent conflict impacts hunger. The next key aspect of food security is food utilization, or put another way, are people able to meet their nutritional needs? Here, we take a look at how conflict impacts this, with specific attention to the crisis in Ukraine. Read Part I and find links to the other posts here.
When it comes to food security, there is a difference between having enough calories and meeting your nutritional needs. An overabundance of calorie-dense food – especially processed and packaged foods that also contain high amounts of salt or sugar – does not necessarily contribute to food security, because part of food security means having the right kinds of food: nutritious, clean and safe. The availability of this food, the ability to safely store and prepare it, and our own confidence as consumers all play a role in food utilization.
Unfortunately, in a violent conflict, when much of the food system and society is unstable, these are the kinds of foods that tend to be less available. During a crisis, people often turn toward shelf-stable, processed foods that are quick to prepare, easy to carry, readily available and inexpensive. We saw this in countries such as Brazil and Indonesia in 2020, where as much as half of the population turned to eating less overall or eating more highly processed foods to get through the crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
One of the main concerns in the Ukraine conflict is the nutritional well-being of people displaced by violence within Ukraine and those who have fled the country as refugees. As people are displaced from their homes and local communities, their ability to procure safe, nutritious food is often hampered. In some cases, humanitarian aid can help make up the difference, but not everyone has access to this. We can surmise from recent reports that humanitarian agencies are facing significant obstacles in reaching people who are internally displaced within Ukraine.
The other aspect of food utilization to consider in a conflict is safe handling and storage of food. With attacks impacting both personal security of civilians as well as critical infrastructure that provides power for cooking and sanitation for clean water, conflict increases the risk of illnesses that come from contaminated food. Conflict also makes it harder for people to get treatment for diseases that can impact their nutrition and overall health, such as diarrhea, fevers, diabetes and, of course, COVID-19.
Here, too, the effects cascade to other populations. Host countries welcoming refugees can encounter obstacles in ensuring that everyone – including native residents – has enough food and that there is capacity in the healthcare system to meet the growing need. In addition, countries relying on exports from Ukraine and Russia may turn to less nutritious or less safe food available locally or in alternative markets.
With all of these interconnected systems, one of the most important aspects of food security is how stable and reliable the food system is. We turn to that in the next post on stability.