Public Health Nutrition Editorial Highlight: ‘Food variety consumption and household food insecurity coping strategies after the 2010 landslide disaster – the case of Uganda’ Peter M Rukundo, Arne Oshaug, Bård A Andreassen, Joyce Kikafunda, Byaruhanga Rukooko and Per O Iversen.

Undernourishment affects one in five people in Uganda. To exacerbate this problem, an estimated 20,0000 Ugandans are affected by natural disasters every year. Undernourishment has become acute and is even considered to be an obstacle to the country’s development.

To try and get to the root of this problem, a recent study published in Public Health Nutrition turned the spotlight on the population’s nutritional needs following one of the worst landslides in Uganda’s history. The disaster struck in the Bududa district of Eastern Uganda in March 2010 – claiming about 350 lives and affecting another 10,000 people; about 10 percent of victims were resettled over 300km away in the Western Uganda district of Kiryandongo.

In one of the first studies of its kind, researchers from Uganda and Norway looked at the diet and food coping strategies of local people in the aftermath of the disaster. In both Bududa and Kiryandongo, disaster-affected households were compared with controls from a randomly selected neighbouring sub-county to establish variations in food stuffs used in households and the level of food insecurity they were facing.

In order to measure dietary quality, researchers used the count of different food varieties consumed by a household – known as food variety score (FVS). This variable is particularly important in understanding the extent to which food is treated as a fundamental human right in extreme situations of vulnerability, such as in the aftermath of disaster. It is also vital in understanding the immediate determinants of a wide range of nutritional-health outcomes with consequences for survival, disease and mortality.

What the research team found was pretty striking. Out of 72 listed food varieties, households in both Bududa and Kiryandongo consumed less than 11 varieties over a recall period of seven days. Most households relied heavily on a limited variety of cereals and legumes especially maize-corn and beans, since these are relatively cheap.

However, food varieties that are sources for high biological value proteins – such as poultry, eggs, meat, milk and fish – scored poorly in both affected and control groups in the two districts; implying most households had not accessed them. Fruit and vegetable varieties, which are the known source of vitamins and minerals, also scored poorly in both districts with averages of less than two varieties for fruits and less than three varieties for vegetables.

Remarkably opposite trends were also observed. In Bududa, households that had been affected by the disaster had consumed more food varieties than households in the control groups. In Kiryandongo, on the other hand, the control households had consumed more varieties than their disaster-affected neighbours.

However, disaster-affected households in both districts had a two times greater likelihood than controls to skip a day without eating a household meal, while turning to coping mechanisms such as seeking food assistance from neighbours, friends and relatives was also a significant practice of affected households in both districts. Although community, family and neighbourhood safety nets are still a viable alternative in the Ugandan context, the capital base of supportive families, friends and close relatives is often small and may not provide long-term prospects for achieving and maintaining adequate food in the household.

The study concluded that the resettlement process of households affected by the landslide could have exposed them to more severe food insecurity coping mechanisms. These findings may have implication for disaster management programmes at both national and international levels.

Interventions in the aftermath of a disaster like the landslide in Uganda should provide a combination of relief food, social protection and resettlement integration to offset undesirable coping strategies that have a long-term impact on diet and nutrition. Essentially, an individual-specific food and nutrition package for disaster victims needs to be clearly defined to guide institutions during any emergency response and to offset the undesirable food insecurity coping strategies that can lead households into precarious situations of hunger, starvation and related dire consequences in the aftermath of disasters.

The paper, ‘Food variety consumption and household food insecurity coping strategies after the 2010 landslide disaster – the case of Uganda’ is an Open Access paper published in Public Health Nutrition.

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