Venezuelans going to bed hungry as food crisis deepens

People are skipping meals and missing out on vital nutrients because of the persistent shortages

Florantonia Singer
A fruit and vegetable market in Caracas.
A fruit and vegetable market in Caracas.MARCO BELLO (REUTERS)

The food crisis in Venezuela is having an impact on the health of Venezuelans, according to a survey by researchers in the country. The majority have lost weight and are going to bed hungry. Around 64.3% of people surveyed said they had lost 11 kilograms in 2017. The food packages that the government sells at regulated prices only reach around 12.6 million people – a little more than a third of the population.

The people are developing strategies to survive, but not to feed themselves Doctor Marianella Herrera

The scarcity of food items has had a dramatic effect on people’s weight and on what they eat, according to the results of the 2017 Survey on Life Conditions of Venezuelans, which has been conducted since 2014 by researchers at the country’s three most important academic institutions: Simón Bolivar University, Andrés Bello Catholic University and the Central University of Venezuela.

“People are developing strategies to survive but not to feed themselves. Now it’s not even possible to substitute ingredients. The fall in the consumption of maize flour, an ingredient that under Venezuelan laws is enriched with iron and vitamins, has been dramatic, as is the drop consumption of fruit and vegetables, which provide micronutrients,” says doctor Marianella Herrera, one of the team investigators.

Yucca and rice are now the staple diet for most Venezuelans. For the first time, maize flour – the main ingredient for the country’s emblematic arepas – is no longer one of the top foods in the Venezuelan diet.

In the 2016 survey, the majority of respondents said they had lost eight kilograms – three more than the year before – indicating that malnutrition was spreading.

Herrera says most Venezuelans are anemic because their diet lacks the iron found in meat, green leafy vegetables and the national maize flour, which has become increasingly scarce and is now substituted by the government with imported versions that do not have the extra vitamins. This other flour – like Mexican maize flour which can be used to make tortillas but not arepas – is distributed through Local Food and Production Committees (CLAP) which are controlled by government supporters.

According to the study, 87% of Venezuelans are now living in  poverty

In contrast, 7.2% of respondents said they had gained 7.6 kilograms – a figure that is also a source of concern. “A diet based on root vegetables and flours will make some people fatter but not save them from the malnutrition epidemia we are going through,” said Herrera.

The results of the survey quantify the extent of hunger in Venezuela and the increasing levels of poverty. According to the study, 87% of Venezuelans are now living in poverty. The government of President Nicolás Maduro has tried to hide the crisis, refusing to release statistics on the subject for five years.

The findings are based on a national survey of 6,148 homes, held between July and September of last year. They do not take into account how conditions may have deteriorated since Venezuela was hit by hyper-inflation in November. According to the survey results, over eight million Venezuelans only eat two meals or less a day. Breakfast is the meal which is most likely to be skipped in homes where 61.2% of those surveyed are going to sleep with an empty stomach.

“We have dramatic reports of mothers who have to decide which child to feed proteins to on a given  day and which one not,” says Herrera. By crossing various variables, it can be said that food insecurity affects 80% of Venezuelan families, she adds.

Control strategies

We have dramatic reports of mothers who have to decide which child to feed protein to Doctor Marianella Herrera

The number of people reached by Venezuelan mission and social programs has fallen, according to the survey. In 2017, fewer than 200,000 people received help from the medical mission Barrio Adentro, created by former president Hugo Chávez with the support of the Cuban government, which sent thousands of Cuban doctors to treat people in Venezuela’s poorest suburbs.

Now, social policies are centered on the CLAP and money vouchers that a person can receive by using a Chavista ID card. Of the 13.4 million Venezuelans who benefit from government social programs, 12.6 million receive food. This figure represents how many people have a Chavista ID card: in three out of four Venezuelan homes some family member has the card, which was launched last year and used recently in state and municipal elections to influence votes.

“We see that Venezuelans view the ID card as something that will allow them to receive what the government is distributing, and it is not necessarily related to a citizen’s political affinities. If this were true, the government would have to have at least a 75% approval rate. This is undoubtedly a tool of control which the government could use to regulate access to social services,” warns the sociologist María Gabriela Ponce.

The distribution of food via CLAP does little to alleviate the problem of food scarcity in the country, and instead exacerbates inequalities, say the researchers. The frequency of food packages is discretional and intermittent. A little more than half of the homes which are part of the program do not receive packages periodically. This figure jumps to 69% in small cities where poverty is higher. Meanwhile in the capital Caracas, 64% of beneficiaries confirmed that they receive a package once a month, and 24% every two months.

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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