‘The Solution to Hunger Isn’t in Handing Out Food’

Researcher Maritza Landaeta has seen how Venezuela reached this point of severe malnutrition and knows how to reverse it

Photo: César Suárez

After 20 years as a researcher in the creation of nutritional growth pattern studies, planning and nutrition in Venezuela, Maritza Landaeta, coordinator of research and teaching for the Bengoa Foundation and the Observatorio Venezolano de la Salud, works all over the country giving support and nutritional information to teachers, children, parents and vulnerable groups. “Working from inside communities means that I witness how conditions have worsened in a country where one in three people doesn’t have enough food. But it’s also work surrounded by people who want to strengthen their communities by helping each other.”

The most recent poll by the World Food Programme, released in February 2020 with data collected from July until September 2019, registers that over nine million Venezuelans don’t have access to food, even if it’s available, due to hyperinflation and the high price of products; 60% of the population has had to cut down on their food portions, and four out of ten homes have to deal with irregular water supply and power outages. The study claims that the lack of food is a problem that hits the entire country, but in states like Delta Amacuro, Amazonas, and Falcón, it’s more severe. Even in areas that report lower indexes, such as Lara, Cojedes, and Mérida, it’s estimated that one in five people are at risk of malnutrition.

Landaeta explains that our crisis began in 2002, when an important economic contraction took place along with a sucker punch to national production. “Confiscations began that year, as well as a strict control on national production when the government got involved in the production process. The government thought at the time, since they had the money, that they could import food. Unfortunately that prosperity period didn’t last long and our agriculture was producing less. Today we produce between 18% and 20% of what Venezuela demands. Monitoring agricultural activity in the country has taken place and it’s astonishing how the meat and grain consumption has dropped, according to collected data. The amount of available calories in the country accounts for 52% of the required needs of the population, and 64% if we talk about animal protein.”

Now, only three months after the first alarm on the pandemic, the UN publishes a report that states that a famine can develop in about three dozen countries because of COVID-19, and Venezuela is among the top ten. According to the parameters established by the UN, a situation can be labelled as famine when there’s an extreme lack of food for a high amount of people. In other words, when the problem affects a population or region large enough to generate epidemics or health issues of magnitude; acute malnutrition rates reach 30% of the residents; the brute mortality rates surpass 2 per 10,000 people, per day.

However, Landaeta suggests that acute malnutrition rates aren’t always considered at those levels, and they’re difficult to reach in places where social realities differ greatly to what these organizations have reported, like countries devastated by armed conflicts or natural disasters.

What’s the current situation regarding hunger and malnutrition in Venezuela?

In general, people depend entirely on the CLAP boxes, which have deficient distribution (they don’t reach all areas and they don’t come in regularly). Each box contains 10 kgs of food, and that’s barely enough for a family of five to eat five days; 1,300 calories a day, when the minimum requirement is 2,300. What do people do to eat the remaining days? We don’t know, beyond them trying to stretch out the food as much as possible. We’ve seen the effect of weight loss and growth in the child malnutrition indexes. Cases of clinical malnutrition are more common each day, with the aggravating fact that it’s happening to smaller children, under a year or six months old.

“In general, people depend entirely on the CLAP boxes, which have deficient distribution (they don’t reach all areas and they don’t come in regularly).”

Which are the consequences of malnutrition during childhood?

Childhood is a period of fast growth and if you don’t have the calories needed, essential fatty acids and amino acids can affect proper development. We’re worried that these malnutrition levels at such an early age can affect intellectual capacity. Children who survive can be left with serious learning disabilities, they will require special needs education, and they probably won’t have access to it. These injuries can be irreversible. Another precipitating factor is that, in Venezuela, 23% of pregnancies come from teenagers, girls who start their pregnancy already malnourished, and in turn give birth to children with low muscle mass. In this case, we’re also talking about girls without access to birth control.

Social problems usually blend into each other and that’s why we insist that malnutrition problems aren’t related only to food access. The state has to guarantee access to drinkable water, vaccination campaigns and clean spaces where infectious diseases, like diarrhea, could develop if left unchecked. Without a public health system, the population becomes vulnerable, and this includes worsening their malnutrition.

We usually focus on child malnutrition, but the elderly folks are also a group at risk of malnourishment, because it’s impossible for them to regain body mass that was lost.

The last yearly report by the Convite organization claims that the elderly are losing one kilogram per week, on average.

In the Global Risk Report by the World Economic Forum, two problems are identified as the main cause for starvation: a failed government and financial disparity. What would the relationship be between Venezuelan politics and economy with the current malnutrition situation?

In the case of Venezuela, they’re completely related. From the economic point of view, we’re diminished and the possibility to help people in economic matters is low. There’s a lot of unemployment and a lot of dependency on bonuses. Currently, within the pandemic frame, there hasn’t been any political or economic solution to correct the situation. We need integral policies that won’t leave the population alone in the midst of a political crisis. It seems like the political players (both representing the government and the opposition) are waiting for a famine to happen so that they take action, but one of the peculiarities of malnutrition is that most of those who suffer it, survive it.

There’s an initiative coordinated by a number of UN organizations to approach the situation through humanitarian aid, but it all ends up falling in the same vicious circle in which the government intervenes and tries to hide the severity of the problem. The poll carried out by the World Food Programme claims that there were 9.3 million people at risk of malnutrition in Venezuela. The government simply disregarded the report and said it was false. And while the reality is being twisted, no one makes effective decisions and it’s impossible to plan on cut short bases.

Which public policies can be put in place to start guaranteeing food supply for Venezuelans?

In countries that have successfully fought against malnutrition, health care specially focused on children has been fundamental: from prenatal care to vaccinations, food supply, and growth and development control. Nothing is done overnight, they’re very slow processes that require big political commitments for a long term project. In Chile, it took between 10 to 15 years to battle their malnutrition problem, but they succeeded. No development is possible if the population is poor and malnourished. It’s not about being able to give out a box of food, but to guarantee the required food to each family.

“A malnourished child is an abandoned child.”

In Chile, when the protests began in October, the motto was social dignity and the government talked about how effective feeding programs were. Now, barely three months after the pandemic alarm, new protests are arising and the motto is hunger. Many countries are presenting a rise in food supply issues, but the report published by the UN says that a famine can be established in Venezuela because of the pandemic.

In the context of the pandemic, everything becomes much harder for many countries, like we’ve seen in Latin America. Some specialists say that the year 2020 could end with 250 million people starving around the world, compared to the 135 million we currently have. Venezuela needs foreign help with food supply to compensate for the drop in national production. But the problem now is that many countries are going through a massive economic and productive contraction. This means more countries are asking for international support. Besides, in Venezuela there’s fewer access to resources thanks to the imposed sanctions. Venezuela already lost the grain and cereal harvest that takes place this time of year, and we were already only producing 8% of the corn we consume. We don’t only need food, we also need the materials for agriculture while the fuel crisis, and the water and electricity outages worsen the situation. There’s less food in Venezuela each day, and that’s so for the whole world.

The Bengoa Foundation is working to improve the nutrition in communities, monitoring the state of Venezuelans’ diet, and fostering information on food and nutrition. How has the organization changed, what’s its reach, and the requirements needed to support the people during the pandemic?

We have people who work already in each of the communities we deal with, so moving to places isn’t much of a problem. Food supply is being done through safe conducts and we seek donations, too. Inflation has affected us a lot, because the money we receive loses its value very quickly. It’s not only the need to fulfil the requirements presented by those who fund us, it’s also a moral commitment in the country’s most difficult moment. But now, more than ever, I’m seeing people trying to earn strength by helping others.

Beyond the relationship between malnutrition and the social, political, and economic environment, there’s also a spiritual dimension to food.

One of the things we work with is the emotional side. A malnourished child is an abandoned child. We work hard in rescuing the custom of eating as a family, that people acknowledge that moment as a loving space. There’s a strong emotional bond when parents feed and look after their children. We also want to convey the importance of feeling pleasure when you eat, because eating stimulates all senses. The most important emotional link in a family originates at the dinner table. This fundamental social dynamic in a family happens at the dinner table. That’s why we insist that feeding people isn’t just about handing out food.