How Nutritious Are the Food Parcels for Vulnerable Lebanese?

A new study co-authored by Dr. Lama Mattar and Dr. Hussein F. Hassan surveys the nutritional adequacy of food parcels being distributed to the underprivileged Lebanese population following the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing economic crisis.

By Luther J. Kanso

As Lebanon grapples with a ruinous economic collapse and attempts to recover from the devastating repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic, there remains no doubt that the Lebanese population is currently in a substantial slump. With food parcels relatively the sole lifeline for many struggling Lebanese families, one cannot help but question whether they are providing adequate nutrition during these unparalleled times.

To this end, LAU’s Associate Professor of Nutrition Lama Mattar and Associate Professor of Food Science and Technology Hussein F. Hassan, in collaboration with researchers from the American University of Beirut, sought to evaluate the qualitative and quantitative status of food parcel distribution in Lebanon over the past couple of years in a study titled “Assessing the Nutritional Content and Adequacy of Food Parcels among Vulnerable Lebanese during a Double Crisis: COVID-19 Pandemic and an Economic Meltdown.” LAU nutrition graduates Nour Kalash (MS ’21) and Dana Malli (MS ’21) made significant contributions to the research.

Sensing the alarming gravity of Lebanon’s social and economic plight, especially after the Beirut Port explosion, scores of international non-governmental organizations (INGOs), local NGOs and personal initiatives strategized to distribute food parcels across Lebanon’s eight governorates: Akkar, Baalbeck-Hermel, Beirut, the Bekaa, Mount Lebanon, North Lebanon, Nabatiyeh and South Lebanon in an attempt to help the impoverished community.

“We know that, in the nutrition and public health field, we distribute food at the beginning of an emergency,” said Dr. Mattar, “but then you have to find other systems as well that will alleviate food insecurity.”

Of a list of 179 food parcel providers (FPP), only 72 participated in the study. To the community’s misfortune, it was found that – while heterogeneous in nature and without a centralized authority – the FPPs showed little adherence to the dietary guidelines and a lack of nutritional adequacy in providing essentials rich in vitamins and minerals, among others.

According to Dr. Hassan, the study found that the nutritional content of food parcels reflects their low contribution to total daily energy needs, a high percentage of carbohydrates and low protein and fiber content. All the same, he added, the percentage of energy from fat, sugar and salt exceeded the recommended requirements.

Besides the salient low adherence to the World Food Programme food parcel guidelines among the surveyed FPPs, the study also brought to the fore the inconsistency in food aid distribution among the aforementioned governorates, given that initiatives were mostly concentrated in Beirut.

“One of the reasons can be that Beirut is simply a community with a high density of population,” observed Dr. Mattar. “However, this does not erase the need for concentration on food insecurity in other sectors.”

Food prices have also risen drastically since the start of the financial crisis and were further exacerbated by the pandemic – all the more reason for adjustments to be made to the recurrent changes in food items in both quality and quantity.

Both professors are mainly concerned about the long-term ramifications that might arise from the community’s shortage of sufficient nutritional access and security should irregularity in food aid persist. With the percentage of obesity on the rise and access to adequate quality nutrition at an all-time low, “sufficient nutritious and quality food distribution should aim to alleviate food insecurity and not just provide empty calories; it’s about preventing all forms of malnutrition, especially in emergencies,” they said.

The paper calls for policymakers, organizations and multisectoral stakeholders to establish a policy framework, design an action plan and implement the suggested guidelines for food safety and security.

As an example, Dr. Hassan highlighted the experience of an NGO he presides in North Bekaa, where the food parcels arranged on a monthly basis include authentic, preservative-free and highly nutritious mouneh products prepared by Lebanese women in the NGO’s food processing facility. “The women, who are thus empowered with jobs, are also beneficiaries of the parcels,” he said, “and I have been reaching out to other NGOs in Lebanon to adopt the same model.”

Furthermore, the study recommends they mobilize public support and advocacy for increased funding and resources for food assistance programs in Lebanon and take into account the ethical considerations when designing and implementing food assistance programs, particularly in the context of vulnerable populations facing multiple crises.