What it feels like when food prices leap

As well-fed world leaders discuss hunger as part of the G8 summit, the voices of those going without is often missed. Cat Meredith looks at Oxfam’s recent  Squeezed report to hear personal accounts of how food price volatility is impacting on people’s lives.

On Monday the leaders of some of the world’s richest nations will meet at Lough Erne in Northern Ireland for the G8 Summit. Global food security is on the agenda, and Oxfam and over 100 other UK organisations are campaigning for decisions, which will help ensure there’s enough food for everyone, through the IF campaign.

The food price spike of 2011 increased the numbers of people living in poverty by an estimated 44 million.

Squeezed, our research into the impact of food price volatility illustrates why it’s never been more important to talk about how to feed everyone on the planet.

Global food prices have risen sharply, substantially and unpredictably since 2007. People have come to expect food prices to rapidly rise and fall, though nobody knows by how much or when. The causes of food price volatility are complex, but they include land grabs, commodity speculation, oil price rises, and climate change. And it’s clear that changes in food prices affect the poorest people the most. The food price spike of 2011 alone increased the numbers of people living in poverty by an estimated 44 million.

To find out more about the impact of food price changes Oxfam and the Institute of Development Studies embarked on a four year project. The results of research in 2012, in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Kenya, Zambia, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Bolivia, Pakistan and Viet Nam, have just been published. Researchers in 23 locations visited groups and households, in slums, villages and suburbs, to ask questions about how people have been affected by food price changes. Then they compared the results with official food security indicators.

The interviews reveal some deeply distressing stories. Families are being forced to make decisions about what and how much they eat, compromising their health, safety, and the future of their children.

‘We can’t let them not go to school…’

Poor families are being trapped in a vicious cycle; they want to send their children to school so they can have a better life, but the cost of doing so means they have to eat less, and their children can’t focus.

A mother from Chichicastanenga in urban Guatemala explains: ‘What we do is eat meals twice a day, or at breakfast we only drink oatmeal porridge with bread and then eat a meal at lunchtime and then supper; I talk with my children and tell them that we do this so that they can get ahead because we don’t have money and we can’t let them not go to school.’

A teacher in Chugüexá Primero, rural Guatemala, reported that her pupils’ performance is held back because of hunger:
‘Children are affected by food prices, because they don’t perform well in school when they are not well-fed.  They can’t remember what they learned in class, or they are tired, they are restless, or they are anxious for snacktime; when they see the snacks they get really restless.’

‘We have become used to eating less…’

Food price changes are forcing people to change eating habits, one man interviewed in Kabwata, Zambia talked about having to eat food usually only eaten by babies:
‘Sometimes I feel frustrated that I can’t have certain things I want. When for example we do away with bread, we are forced to eat porridge, porridge is meant for babies but when things are tough, you eat the porridge.’

A woman from Koyra, Bangladesh, explained how rising prices have forced her family to consistently eat less, even of rice, the basic staple:
‘Actually we need 500g of rice in each meal a day but now we are having only 375g of rice in each meal. We have become used to eating less.’

The impact of lack of food on children and mothers is the most heart-breaking. Mothers have a grim choice: they either starve themselves (and by extension their babies) or they deprive their older children. It’s a predicament no woman should ever have to face.

Mrs M, mother of eight, including an 18-month-old, in Gulshan-e-Iqbal, Karachi, Pakistan said:
‘The children quarrel over food; one says that he will eat and the other one says that she will eat, and so there is no food for me. Whether I can eat or the children can; yes I realize that they come hungry from school… One of my daughters often faints; the children go hungry even without tea. My baby does not even get a quarter kg of milk because I cannot breastfeed him anymore. I give him water with some sugar in it. His teeth have grown now. When we do not have sugar, he drinks only water.’

This story was echoed by that of Mrs S, a 22-year-old former maid and garments worker, mother of an eight-month-old baby in Kalyanpur, Dhaka, Bangladesh:
‘As I am not able to eat regularly my breast milk is drying up, for this my boy is not getting milk from my breast …As a mother I am not able to breastfeed my son with Allah’s great blessings mother’s milk, I feel very bad.’

Mrs S is left feeling guilty for failing to feed her baby even though she herself is a victim of forces and price changes beyond her control. A community health worker in Mukuru, Nairobi, Kenya, also felt powerless when confronted with children whose health is being jeopardized because of malnutrition and lack of protein, she said:
‘I find malnourished children in some homes, and on asking why they are like that, they say that it is due to lack of some nutrients because they have the same meals every day.’

Many other people interviewed shared concern about the poor quality of their food. As well as eating less, they reported eating food which was going bad, and not being able to eat the same variety of foods.

If, like me, reading through these accounts leaves you longing to be able to change the situation, please support the IF campaign and place pressure on global leaders now. It’s scandalous that hunger is a reality for one in eight people in a world of such affluence. The problem will not go away overnight, but through global and local pressure we can end it.

To find out more about the impact of food price volatility, not only on hunger but also on well being and community cohesion read the Squeezed  report.

More on this…

  • Download the Squeezed report.
  • Visit our project page for more information and an interactive map of research sites and food price data.
  • Keep in touch – for all  our latest blogs and publications you can follow @OxfamGBPolicy on Twitter and sign up to our monthly newsletter. 

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Author: Catherine Meredith
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.