Worldwide families struggle to stay afloat amid rising food prizes

World food prices are at their highest level in a decade, according to the U.N. food agency, making basic staples like rice, beans and cooking oil increasingly unaffordable for billions of people.

BY KIM HARRISBERG, ANASTASIA MOLONEY, ROLI SRIVASTAVA, NANCHANOK WONGSAMUTH AND MAYA GEBEILY

How much do you spend on food? For some people, it’s not worth thinking about. But for countless others, it’s all-consuming.

World food prices are at their highest level in a decade, according to the U.N. food agency, making basic staples like rice, beans and cooking oil increasingly unaffordable for billions of people.

Compounded by the economic downturn due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many working families are struggling to stay afloat.

The Thomson Reuters Foundation spoke to five people around the globe – from Costa Rica to India – to hear how they are coping with soaring food prices.

Refiloe Molefe, 62, Johannesburg, South Africa

Refiloe Molefe is an urban farmer and runs a soup kitchen

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Refiloe Molefe smiles for a photo next to her sunflowers in her inner city farm in Johannesburg, South Africa, 17 February 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Kim Harrisberg

Food is very expensive these days. I farm more than I buy at the shops but people are coming to the farm crying, saying they can’t even afford bread any more.

A few months ago, bread was about 12 rand ($0.84) and now it’s gone up to 15 rand.

Maize meal was 60 rand for 10 kilograms and now it is about 85 rand. Sugar was 25 rand for 2 kilograms, now it’s 35.

Those few rands are a lot to someone who has little.

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Refiloe Molefe smiles with friends at her inner city farm in Johannesburg, South Africa, 17 February 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Kim Harrisberg

Before lockdown we were feeding up to 50 people per week with our own vegetables and soup kitchen. Now, it’s over 150 people every week.

They are so hungry, especially with COVID-19, things are becoming worse, worse, worse. The hunger is growing.

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Refiloe Molefe smiles with customers at her inner city farm in Johannesburg, South Africa, 17 February 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Kim Harrisberg

Most people have lost their jobs, so we are helping to feed men, women and children of all ages and races and backgrounds.

But soup kitchens are not long-term solutions. I use the food in my garden to cook for the hungry. If I didn’t have my garden some days we would not have anything to cook.

We need to teach people how to grow their own food. In each and every house we need to have a garden, then that will help solve the problem.

I am hoping for the best for the future. If we help people to plant their own food, they will be empowered.

Aracelly Jimenez, 35, Puntarenas province, Costa Rica

Single mother and fisherwoman Aracelly Jimenez leads a local fishing and shellfish cooperative made up of nearly 50 women

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Fisherwoman, Aracelly Jimenez, 35, poses for a photo in her village in Puntarenas province, Costa Rica. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Picture courtesy: Aracelly Jimenez

In the past year, the price of rice and beans has increased by about 20%. I noticed prices starting to rise about four months into the pandemic.

Meat and dairy products, like cheese, have also risen. Our meals now rarely have meat, chicken or vegetables. It’s basically just rice and beans.

We’ve had to endure hunger before, but this year has been really bad. There’s been little help from the government. I have barely enough to pay for basic services like water and electricity.

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Fisherwomen return with their catch for sale at a local fish market in Puntarenas, Costa Rica’s Pacific coast near the Venado Island March 22, 2006. REUTERS/Stringer

We sell our produce to middlemen who come to our village to buy the fish and shellfish, and who then sell on to restaurants and markets.

But everything is closed and tourism has stopped because of the pandemic lockdowns. As there are no tourists, there’s no demand.

We barely sell anything these days. When we do, we are forced to sell to the middleman for a much lower price.

And with food prices rising, it’s been a double blow.

We now usually eat two meals a day. Sometimes it’s even just one meal a day. We have to make do with what we have.

Mukesh Kharva, 34, Mumbai, India

Mukesh Kharva sells clothes in local markets and utensils door-to-door

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Mukesh Kharva and his wife Pooja cook together in their shack in a slum in Mumbai, India, on June 9, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Picture courtesy: Mukesh Kharva

Before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, I made about 300 Indian rupees ($4) a day. I live with my wife and three children in a one-room shack with a tin roof in a Mumbai suburb and commute by train.

It is a tough life but I always came home looking forward to the “khichdi” my wife makes for us every day – a dish of lentils and rice, cooked with onions and tomatoes.

My children love it too and it was our staple meal.

But we don’t have it every day anymore as the prices of ingredients have gone up.

Peanut oil is now 170 rupees a litre, when it used to cost 110 rupees. And the split pigeon peas used in the khichdi has risen to 130 rupees a kilogram from 80 to 90 rupees.

This is hard when I have had no earnings since last year due to lockdowns. My family can only afford to have one meal a day.

My neighbours tell me my children have lost weight, but I am trying to do my best.

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Mukesh Kharva and his wife Pooja stand together outside their shack in a slum in Mumbai, India, on June 9, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Picture courtesy: Mukesh Kharva

My children used to want treats like “puris”, a puffy fried bread served with boiled potatoes, or “kheer”, sweetened rice pudding.

But they understand I have had no work and have stopped asking me for these treats.

Now that restrictions have eased, I have started selling utensils again, but I eat only after I come home, whatever there is.

These are terrible times and so many people have suffered loss of income. Shouldn’t food prices be controlled even more now?

I was always able to feed my family. We were happy.

I don’t know what will happen in the future. I am not educated and don’t know what other work to take up. But I feel we can no longer live the life we had before.

Nittaya Muangklang, 37, Chaiyaphum province, Thailand

Nittaya Muangklang is a farmer, and lives with her son, husband and parents

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Nittaya Muangklang tends to her crops in Chaiyaphum province in Thailand on June 12, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Picture courtesy: Nittaya Muangklang

My husband and I grow vegetables in our small plantation and earn less than 10,000 baht ($320) a month.

Because we live in the countryside, the living costs aren’t high, but we have a lot of family members. We pay about 200 baht per day for food, and that’s the minimum.

Nowadays I avoid buying pork because the prices are 170 baht per kilogram, compared to 120 baht last year. It’s very expensive.

I’m surprised at how much the prices of vegetable oil has increased. Early last year, vegetable oil cost 28-29 baht for a litre. Now it costs 47 baht in the supermarkets and 55-60 baht at the market.

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Nittaya Muangklang tends to her crops in Chaiyaphum province in Thailand on June 12, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Picture courtesy: Nittaya Muangklang

I have received 12,500 baht from the government in terms of financial support. But you can’t use this money to pay for certain things such as water and electricity bills.

I owe money to the Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives but I don’t have money to pay them back because of the low prices of agricultural goods, resulting in less income.

Siham Tekkian, 63, Beirut, Lebanon

Siham Tekkian and her husband have owned a local grocery store for 37 yearsLebanon is also grappling with an economic crisis that has pushed much of the population into poverty, posing the biggest threat to stability since the 1975-1990 civil war.

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Shopowner Siham Tekkian speaks to a customer by phone from her shop in Beirut’s Mar Mkhayel neighbourhood on June 9, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Maya Gebeily

We first opened the store when the U.S. dollar was worth one Lebanese pound. The prices slowly went up over time, but we didn’t really feel it. Now, everything is eight times more expensive than before. Eight!

A box of sardines. It was 750 Lebanese pounds ($0.50), and now it’s 10,000. This is the food of the poor – how is someone supposed to afford that? Sugar, just sugar. It cost 1,000 Lebanese pounds before, now it’s 11,000.

These are the bare essentials, and some people can’t afford them. I’m in the same situation, so I understand.

My husband and I make the equivalent of $5 now in a day. What can you do with $5? This store is supposed to provide for four people – me, my husband, my brother and his wife.

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A shopper walks past near-empty shelves at a supermarket in Beirut, Lebanon March 16, 2021. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

We can’t buy things in bulk anymore. We have to buy what we know we’ll be able to sell. The profits are so, so small. And it makes us lose motivation – we have close to none.

There are people I used to help out, giving out stuff for free from the shop. I can’t do that anymore. Yoghurt used to cost 5,000 Lebanese pounds – now it costs five times that. It would break me. I have to tell them, “I’m sorry, it’s not me, it’s the situation”. I just can’t afford it. No way.

I just want to live. I want to be able to eat. I want my dignity. I want to live as a human being with respect. We need the prices to go down so we can live, so we can breathe.

Reporters: Kim Harrisberg, Roli Srivastava, Anastasia Moloney, Nanchanok Wongsamuth, Maya Gebeily
Editors: Lin Taylor and Helen Popper
Producer: Amber Milne

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation

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