How do disasters affect distribution of food? NSF study seeks answer

man looks at nearly empty bread shelves in grocery store

Texas A&M University researchers are collaborating with three other universities on a National Science Foundation initiative aimed at identifying links between the U.S. food distribution system and the nation’s energy, water and transportation networks that are most likely to be disrupted in a natural disaster.

“Food access and affordability are persistent problems for more than 14 percent of Americans in normal times, but these problems are greatly exacerbated following disasters,” said Walter Gillis Peacock, director of the Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center at Texas A&M’s College of Architecture, who is leading the four-year, $2.5 million research collaboration that includes researchers from the center and Texas A&M’s Department of Geography.

“The food distribution system is a complex web of networks that must function together in a stable manner for a community’s residents to have food available after a disaster,” Peacock said

To discover the
 most significant demands natural disasters place on food distribution networks, the capacity of each network to respond, and the interactions between networks and social systems, project researchers are developing virtual network models integrated with socio-economic, employment and business records associated with Gulf and Atlantic hurricane strikes between 2005–14.

Using emerging data processing techniques and computational science, project researchers will, for the first time, perform large-scale analyses of this data.

These analyses, according to the project description, should:

  • Identify weaknesses in the food distribution systems that turn natural hazards into crises;
  • Establish new metrics for measuring the disaster-related resilience of transportation, energy and water distribution systems;
  • Reveal the impact of natural disasters on communities, and
  • Generate new knowledge regarding communities’ disaster vulnerability and resilience.

The research team believes the study will encourage the adoption of policies aimed at maximizing post-disaster food availability by balancing disaster-related vulnerability and resilience. The effort, they said, should also identify new planning and training options for a range of disaster scenarios and foster a shared language between disciplines regarding the causes and characterizations of hazards and risks.

Two Texas A&M investigators, Nathanael Rosenheim, an HRRC assistant research scientist, and Dan Goldberg, assistant professor of geography, will work on the NSF project with multidisciplinary teams of scholars and graduate students from Colorado State University, the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign and East Carolina University.

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