The food distributed in humanitarian settings—typically items like dried beans, grains, and flour—must be cooked in order to be eaten. Cooking is essential: it prevents diseases, improves nutrition, and makes many foods more palatable. However, the fuel needed to cook food and to boil water is almost never provided, and the burden of finding cooking fuel rests on the communities themselves, primarily women and children. When sufficient fuel cannot be found or procured, women resort to undercooking meals—increasing the risk of foodborne illness. Sometimes they are forced to skip meals altogether, which can cause malnutrition, especially in children. Boiling water insufficiently due to a lack of fuel can lead to the consumption of contaminated water and poorly prepared food. In those who are already weakened, this can have life-threatening consequences.
In many instances, families must trade or sell food rations in order to obtain fuel for their energy needs, which often leaves them with less food than they need to survive. A Somali refugee interviewed by the Women’s Refugee Commission in Dadaab camp in eastern Kenya, struggling to find ways to cook food rations for her family, summed up this issue clearly: “Even 100 bags of food is useless without firewood.”
In part because of the difficulties in securing sufficient cooking fuel and the need to trade food rations for fuel, malnutrition rates among displaced populations are often higher than among their non-displaced counterparts – particularly in locations where refugees are banned from collecting firewood.
Lack of safe access to cooking fuel may hinder school meal interventions (typically implemented by the World Food Programme). WFP has found that in some instances, when households are unable to contribute or pay for fuel as part of their community’s participation in the program, their children may be refused school meals. As with every aspect of fuel insecurity, the most vulnerable suffer. The quantity, quality, and nutritional value of the food consumed by a child living in poverty may all be affected.
During the very earliest stages of an emergency response, when nearby firewood is scare or there is pervasive insecurity, precooked or quick-cooking foods should be provided, such as ready to eat meals distributed by WFP in the immediate aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake.
Fuel-efficient cookstoves reduce the amount of fuel needed to properly cook a meal, and thus reduce the burden on families who would otherwise have to collect it, buy it, or trade their food ration for it. Cooking techniques, such as presoaking beans, using tight-fitting lids and sheltering cooking fires from wind, can all help to keep the consumption of cooking fuel to a minimum.