Food famines take toll on Venezuelans’ diet

Nutritionists point to long-term health risks of low-quality food as basic staples are hard to find or being sold at exorbitant prices

Not so long ago, whenever Juan Gonzlez would go to the butcher hed buy a few nice steaks for himself and cow lung, known here as bofe , to chop up and feed his dog.

Now bofe is what I feed, when I can get it, said the 55 -year-old elevator repairman on a street in the Venezuelan capital.

With prolonged shortages of basic foods, Venezuelans have been forced to shift their diets to whatever they can find. And what they can find is not necessarily healthy.

Milk, meat and beans the main sources of protein in the Venezuelan diet are hard to find or sold at exorbitant prices, and many are filling up on empty carbs from pasta, rice and the traditional arepa cornmeal cake.

These fill you up and build you fat but they are not nutritious, told nutritionist Hctor Cruces. Viscera are high in fat and low on protein.

A study uncovered last month by Venezuelas top three universities showed that 12% of those polled said they were eating less than three meals a day.

And those who do have access to three dinners have insured a deterioration in the quality of their diet, told Marianella Herrera-Cuenca, of the Bengoa Foundation, an NGO dedicated to promoting nutrition.

Children and the elderly are hardest hit. Investigators from the Bengoa Foundation told a sampling of 4, 000 school-aged children presented 30% were malnourished and that school absences were on the rise.

Paula Arciniegas, 19, said she worried about the development of her two-year-old daughter because when she cant find milk which is often she soothed her childs thirst with a mix of water and cornstarch.

And I try to get her to sleep through the morning so I dont have to worry about her breakfast, she said.

Cruces, the nutritionist, predicted that future generations of Venezuelans will be shorter and wider because of the low quality of the food “they il be” eating. The absence of calcium will stunt growth and excess carbohydrates will stimulate them fat, he said.

Critics of the socialist government of Nicols Maduro say food production collapsed in the oil-reliant country due to a mix of the expropriation of farmland and agro-industrial enterprises and strict price control that constructed importing food cheaper than making it locally. But a byzantine currency control system and plummeting oil prices have slashed imports of raw materials and food products.

Empresas Polar, the countrys largest food processor, alerted last month it was halting brew production due to a lack of barley, and Coca-Cola said its low sugar stocks may force it to stop production of soft drinks.

Government advocates say its all part of a destabilisation scheme backed by a rightwing opposition and foreign interests that want to see Maduro deposed from power.

To counter that economic war, Maduro has urged people to grow their own food and create chickens in their homes and created the ministry of urban agriculture; more than 80% of Venezuelans live in cities.

Rafael Camacho, 56, took the idea to heart. Originally from the rural region of Barlovento where his family had a farm, Camacho says he has dredged up what he learned as small children to help feed his family of nine. On a slope behind his half-built home on the hills above Caracas, he proudly depicts off the budding plants of corn, squash, bananas, melon and beans. On the rooftop of his home he planted cilantro and peppers and various herbs.

Rafael Camacho indicates off his rooftop veggie and herb garden in Caracas. Photograph: Sibylla Brodzinsky

Im a farmer by nature, I know how to do this, he says.

Camacho still has to stand in line for rice, cornflour, meat and other staples. But with this we know we wont go hungry.

The government is also promoting direct sales from producers in the countryside to consumers.

In the poor Caracas neighbourhood of Carapita, residents lined up to buy veggies brought immediately from Trujillo state to their community centre. There, they were able to mixture and match potatoes, tomatoes, onions, beets, red pepper and cabbage at 355 bolivars (8 2 pennies at the highest official exchange rate) per kilo. At informal street market prices, they could go for as much as 1,000 bolivars ($ 2.33) per kilo.

Around the corner, for 300 bolivars( 70 pennies) they could buy a prefilled pouch of small portions of cook petroleum, pasta, rice, flour and sugar.

This is how we are fighting the economic war, tells Americo Jaramillo, spokesman for the community council.

In a country hooked on processed food, the dearths have forced some to get creative. For most Venezuelans a dinner isnt a snack if there are no arepas. Since processed cornflour is hard to find newspapers offer readers recipes on how to build them from plantains, yucca or yams.

But on a steep hill in in the Petare district of Caracas, Mara Hidalgo, has refused to give up on traditional corn arepas.

She pulled out an old corn mill she had in a closet, rigged it up to a small motor and started building her own cornmeal dough, selling to friends and neighbours.

Its like going back in time, she said.

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