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Summary of the revised joint WFP/UNHCR Guidelines for Estimating Food and Nutritional Needs in Emergencies

Effective from the 1st of January 1998 a new ration planning figure will be used for all new emergency operations by WFP and UNHCR and for ongoing programmes where ration revisions are to be made.

Up until now a planning figure of 1900 kcals has been used as a reference for designing emergency rations. However, in line with recommendations from WHO and the Committee on International Nutrition (CIN), 2,100 kcals will now be used for planning purposes. This will cover the energy needs of a typical population in a developing country assuming standard population distribution, body size, ambient temperature, pre-emergency nutritional status and a light physical activity level of 55 percent above BMR for males and 56 percent for females.

The initial reference ration therefore provides:

2,100 kcals with at least 10-12% of the energy from protein and 17% from fat.

Basic Principles

Ensuring an adequate basic ration is considered to be of utmost importance at the onset of an emergency. The availability of such a ration will reduce the need for other costly and cumbersome food interventions. Adequacy is defined as meeting minimum energy, protein, fat and micronutrient requirements (during the first period of an emergency priority must be given to ensure adequate nutritional energy after which a complete food basket should be mobilised). It should also be nutritionally balanced, diversified, culturally acceptable, fit for human consumption and suitable for children and other vulnerable groups. This is of particular importance for populations entirely dependent on food aid, in which case the ration must cover at least minimum nutritional requirements. Need for an initial reference value for emergency feeding

An in depth assessment is often not possible in the early days of an emergency, therefore the average estimated per capita energy requirement of 2,100 kcals will be used to expedite decisions about the initial provision of food. In situations where it is evident that the food requirement will be different from the initial reference value, there is flexibility to adopt a more appropriate figure for planning food requirements. For example, larger requirements can be expected when the environmental temperature falls below 20 degrees centigrade without adequate protection for the population (provision of shelter and clothing).

Adjustment of the ration

The initial reference value of 2,100 kilocalories is applicable in the early stage of an emergency when no other food is available. For populations not entirely dependent on food aid, an understanding of the various mechanisms used by the population to access other foods is essential for better estimation of food aid requirements. Other additional factors to be considered when adjusting the ration include demographic characteristics (age and gender composition), activity level, environmental temperature, health, nutritional and physiological status. Systematic review of the food and nutrition situation should take place at least every 12 months.

Management considerations

Food habits

The staple food should be culturally acceptable. The target population should have the knowledge and the means to process and prepare it, using available facilities and fuel supplies.

Food processing

It is preferable to provide cereal flours in the early stages of an emergency. If whole grains are to be provided local milling capacity must be available and the ration include compensation for milling cost and losses, if these are to be borne by the beneficiary.

Non-food requirements

The availability of water, cooking facilities, fuel and containers must be ensured. The provision of shelter and blankets is also essential.

Quality control and specifications

A system of quality control for all commodities must be implemented to ensure that food distributed to refugees is of good quality, safe for human consumption and that it meets required specifications. Oil and dried skimmed milk should be fortified with vitamin A and blended food should follow the international specifications of the Codex Alimentarius.

Substitution of commodities

When certain food commodities are not available, they can be replaced by other available food items in order to maintain the adequate energy and protein level of the food basket. However the substitution should not occur for more than one month. The substitution ratios are:

Blended food and Beans = 1:1
Sugar and Oil = 2:1
Cereal and Beans = 2:1
Cereal and Oil = 3:1


(Copies of the Guidelines are available from Anne Callanan WFP or Rita Bhatia UNHCR) WFP Via C. Colombo 426,0014S Rome, Italy. UNHCR P.O. Box 2S00 CH 1211, Geneva 2 Depot, Switzerland.

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Reference this page

Summary of the revised joint WFP/UNHCR Guidelines for Estimating Food and Nutritional Needs in Emergencies. Field Exchange 3, January 1998. p16. www.ennonline.net/fex/3/summary