As food supplies dwindle in Venezuela, children feel sharp pinch

Amid deepening economic crisis, Venezuelans are digging through trash, rioting, and looting in search of their next meal. More than 600 political and food-related protests took place nationwide in May.

Marco Bello/Reuters
A man shouts during a protest over food shortage and against Venezuela's government in Caracas, June 14.

It’s 6 am on a Monday and 14-year-old Sayler Romero is getting ready for her day. But unlike most schooldays, she isn’t donning her uniform or packing books into her knapsack.

For the past nine months, the beginning of Sayler's week has been devoted to standing in Venezuela’s increasingly long – and desperate – grocery store lines.

“My mom doesn’t feel comfortable with this situation, either, but I do it so that my younger siblings aren’t lacking anything to eat,” says Sayler, who is the third of six children and who dreams of finding chicken at the store. She's tasked with the shopping as her working parents fear that an absence – even one day a week – could cost them their jobs, meaning an even more desperate situation for the family. Even now, it’s common for mom or one of the older siblings to skip a meal to ensure the youngest kids can eat, Sayler says. 

Food is becoming increasingly scarce in Venezuela, where citizens are digging through trash, relying on tropical fruits falling from the trees, and in some cases rioting or looting in search of their next meal. More than 600 political and food-related protests took place nationwide in May alone. Thursday, more than 400 people were arrested for rioting and looting due to the shortages.

It’s the result of many factors, including decreasing purchasing power as the cost of food goes up more quickly than wages, and years of policies to keep food prices low for consumers, reducing incentives for private production.

Inflation is expected to reach 700 percent by the end of 2016, electricity and water are regularly cut, and nationwide productivity is hovering around 40 percent of capacity. Meanwhile, the government is focused on its fight to halt a presidential recall referendum.

Amid these hardships, Sayler’s situation isn’t unique. As the economic and political crisis steepens, the effects are hitting larger swaths of the population – including children.

Local school administrators, nutritionists, and doctors report that both students and teachers are increasingly skipping school to stand in line for food, and the incidence of students fainting in the classroom is on the rise. Between 30 and 40 percent of teachers in the capital, Caracas, have been regularly absent since January, according to the Federation of Venezuelan Teachers.

With Venezuela’s political stalemate expected to drag on, families, domestic NGOs, and others are doing what they can to stave off some of the long-term effects on children. From relatives or neighbors sharing resources and food when they can, to local nonprofits soliciting donations for food from companies still manufacturing domestically to distribute in public schools, a central concern is whether the government will declare an emergency, allowing for international aid to help address the situation.

“What worries me most is the damage on future generations,” says Marianella Herrera, a professor of nutrition at the Central University of Venezuela and board director for the Bengoa Foundation, which focuses on health and nutrition in low-income schools across the country. “An entire generation could suffer from stunted physical growth or mental capacities due to the severe malnutrition we’re seeing today. Kids are kept home from school [due to hunger] or are missing classes because teacher’s aren’t present. They’re being exposed to the violence that can erupt while waiting in lines for food.”

How did Venezuela get here?

Historically, Venezuela has been a middle-income country, where the sort of support needed of late hasn’t been necessary. It has not been immune to economic woes: Inflation has long been a problem, pre-dating former President Hugo Chávez's tenure, during which it soared. And for years citizens have faced shortages of basic goods, like toilet papersugar, or toothpaste. But slowly, over the past several months, the combination of inflation, scarcity, and low domestic production has meant a growing struggle simply to feed one’s family, says Phil Gunson, based in Caracas as a senior analyst for the International Crisis Group.

“Ordinary people have not been getting enough to eat for some time, but now the situation means we’re hearing of families where one kid doesn’t eat at least one day a week, or parents go without food to give what little they have to their children,” Mr. Gunson says. “We’re not talking about just the really poor or people living under bridges. We’re talking university professors, paramedics, professionals.”

President Nicolás Maduro took over Mr. Chávez’s term when he died in 2013. And he inherited an economy that relied heavily on oil wealth and foreign borrowing to subsidize vast social welfare spending at a moment when oil prices began to plunge.

“In one swoop the regime lost its principal political asset in its charismatic leader and its main material asset in the form of oil earnings,” says Gunson. “And unlike Saudi Arabia or Russia, when oil prices plunged, Venezuela was left with virtually nothing.”

But political choices have exacerbated the situation, observers say. The government has prioritized paying off foreign debt at the expense of paying pharmaceutical companies or other industries for vital imports, or investing in the domestic production of food, which faltered over the past decade-plus of price controls and expropriations. And the Maduro administration has refused to acknowledge that it’s facing a food crisis, which means little to no international or multilateral aid has been able to trickle in to address the situation. 

The administration has also been consumed by staving off a presidential recall referendum launched by the opposition, which gathered some 1.8 million signatures. If Maduro can put off a recall until after Jan. 10, 2017, a vote of no confidence would lead to his vice president taking the helm to finish the last two years of his term. If the recall moves forward in 2016, however, it could mean fresh presidential elections – and a possible end to Venezuela’s Chavista government.

But as the political machinations continue, upwards of 10 lootings occur every day across the country – from bursting through a bakery door to clear the shelves to ambushing food delivery trucks before they get to their destination, according to the Venezuelan Observatory of Violence. And of the 641 protests that took place last month across the country, 27 percent were related to food and hunger. Protests about food alone went up by 320 percent compared to May 2015, according to the Venezuelan Observatory on Social Conflict.

“Political time is not aligned with human time,” says Ms. Herrera, the nutritionist. “You can feel this tension. When you don’t have food or medicine, when babies are dying and children are fainting: People are really affected and it’s evident that time is running out.”

From healthy eating to just eating

When Herrera first started working in some of the poorest urban and semi-urban schools in and around Caracas about five years ago, the idea was to teach students about healthy eating. Food security was already a challenge for many families there, and school lunch programs, funded by the government, were often just as much a draw for kids to come to class as was their education.

But today, few government aid programs focused on food – in schools or out – are functioning as intended. Shelves are frequently empty at grocery stores where government subsidized foods like rice, flour, or cooking oil are meant to be available for the neediest, forcing many to resort to the black market where prices are much higher. And a new plan to deliver bags of food products door-to-door to families in need has observers scratching their heads over its sustainability.

“The government says malnutrition among kids is [currently] less than 2.5 percent. But we’ve found there are nutritional deficits between 12.5 percent and 27 percent in urban and peri-urban or rural areas, [respectively],” says Herrera. She points to food shortages to explain the uptick in students fainting at school.

“These aren’t situations where the kid skips breakfast. This happens when you have various days of being poorly fed.”

From her perspective, Venezuela’s food situation calls for an emergency response. Although nationwide figures aren't available, she found that in one hospital in Caracas, acute malnutrition in children is on track to double this year compared to 2015, when there were roughly 34 cases attended to at that hospital alone.

Herrera is still working on nutrition projects in schools, helping build urban gardens and teach kids about healthy eating.

“Some say, ‘how can you educate on health if there’s no food or medicine,’” she says. “But to me this is exactly the moment to explain the importance to people. Educational tools always have value. Education is never a loss of time.”

And she says, by continuing this work, she’s helping add to an element of solidarity in Venezuela. “What gives me hope right now is that there are NGOs doing what they can, local communities that are building networks to cooperate and help each other out. They are creating alliances, contacts, and sharing information, and I think when the [political] thermometer changes, this hard work will pay off and [they can] hit the ground running.”

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