Hunger Games and Defending Food Rights in Venezuela

Photo by Ana Felicien

Stories of hunger in Venezuela have been automatically covered news in the international mainstream media in recent years. In the past three years, more and more reports, frontpage stories and exposes have focused on hunger in the so-called “Venezuelan humanitarian crisis.”

The global context of this campaign is that of a planet with rising levels of general hunger. According to the latest report from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), for the third year in a row hunger across the world is on the rise. The number of people suffering from chronic food deprivation (undernourishment) increased from 804 million in 2016 to 821 million in 2017 and this trend continues, especially in conflict-ridden countries. The premise seems to be: hunger and war go hand in hand and the most vulnerable are the first to get hit.

In Venezuela’s case, despite the apparent novelty of the issue, this has been clear for quite some decades. In 1989, structural adjustment policies from the tandem of [then President] Carlos Andrés Pérez and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) made this very clear. Thousands of people rose up in response [against these policies], in what was a powerful demand for food as one of the most fundamental rights.

From that point on, and with the arrival of [Hugo] Chávez to the presidency, the fight against hunger became a central axis of national policy. Building a country free from hunger was the goal for everyone, especially for those that years before had put their bodies on the line in the great anti-neoliberal revolt of 1989.

As such, the impressive gains in the eradication of hunger were recognised by the FAO and became a common feature in the media as an example of food rights. The FAO recognised Venezuela’s efforts in fighting hunger, which shifted from 14,1% in 1990 to less than 5% of the population in 2015.

Some nutrition researchers stress that a key factor in this process was breaking the relation between income level and the availability of caloric resources for human intake. This relation expresses the dependence of food intake on economic income and, starting in 2002, the policies to provide food to the sectors of the population with lowest incomes broke this relation. This meant that the right to food emerged as a concrete and routine practice for Venezuelans.

Now, three years have passed since oil prices plummeted from over US $100 a barrel in early 2014 to around US $40 in early 2015. Three years have also gone by since the first sanctions against Venezuela were implemented by the Obama administration, since being intensified by the current US government. The result has been a combination of these two factors with the enormously complex structure of the Venezuelan food system, which is reliant on imports, heavily colonised by northern tastes and swollen by the oil boom of recent decades. Currently, and despite all efforts, the dynamics of food-access depends on income: those who have more money eat more and better.

The latest FAO repor on global food security and nutrition shows an increase in the undernourished population of the country between 2014-2016. Likewise, the International Food Policy Research Institute reports an increase in the Global Hunger Index (GHI) from 9.3 in 2008 to 13 in 2017. Although these numbers are still in the ‘moderate’ band, they show a deterioration of the food situation in Venezuela.

Beyond these figures, the most visible result is an increase in the number of people who are vulnerable in this regard. Today we have more people suffering from hunger in Venezuela, and this starkly demonstrates what Schiavoni terms as the “political nature of food in Venezuela.”

Faced with this, the responses most seen in the media are, on the one hand, the new food traffickers, known in Venezuela as bachaqueros, specialists in re-selling basic foodstuffs such as precooked corn flour at speculative and illegal prices, and, on the other, the so-called humanitarian aid campaigns that have specialised in raising amounts that reach US $15,000, US $30,000 or US $65,000 through various crowdfunding platforms. These amounts then get multiplied in Venezuela depending on the exchange rate established in the parallel market, something which is illegal but very much established in social media.

Both replies gruesomely reinforce the notion of food as a commodity, destined for charity or for speculation, but a commodity nonetheless.

Despite this, and without wishing to blow our own horn, a 2003 program has returned to the forefront of the struggle against hunger in the shantytowns: food houses (casas de alimentación). With an unprecedented role, today they are places of direct struggle against dail hunger as well as against the silence left by the noisy propaganda of humanitarian aid.

Inside the houses the mothers lead the fight

‘How do you feel and what day is it?’, this is the first question that the workers ask dozens of boys and girls that have found themselves living in the streets and come looking for breakfast, lunch ora snack at the Mama Rosa canteen in Chacaíto, Caracas. The monitoring of the weight and height of those who come is done every month and the children are served black beans, lentils, sardines or eggs as a source of protein, rice, pasta and arepas, and fororo as a snack.

The only thing that the kids who show up have to commit to is to spend the whole day under the care of the educators and cooks that work here to drag these groups of kids out of hunger. The majority come from large families with more than four children, mainly from Valles del Tuy, a heavily populated locality in Miranda State, close to Caracas, or from other states such as Apure.

This is a food house like many others, but it is different because it tends especially to children living on the streets. At first, many did not even know how to use a fork. Today, many basic habits have been restored, such as washing one’s hands, eating while seated and respecting other people’s food, explained Orianna, an occupational therapist, in an interview.

It was opened in April 2018, and in 8 months they have tended to around 200 kids. In some cases, they have managed to reunite some of these children with their families, many of them Venezuelan migrants, all of them victims of the [economic] war.

In the Caracas sector of El Valle, Yasmila runs an artisanal bakery along with her family and coordinates the Mama Rosa food house. Here they tend to 279 seniors, pregnant women, children and teenagers living on the streets. Most of the beneficiaries are male seniors, whom the mothers running the house call “abandoned grandfathers.”

Food is served at noon and people line up to move to the canteen. Every day the cooking mothers, who embrace this battle against hunger, require the following amounts of food for the meals: 24 kilos of pasta, 15 kilos of black beans, 7 kilos of precooked corn flour, 20 kilos of fororo, 2 kilos of milk, 2 kilos of sugar, 5 boxes of sardines, and 24 kilos of rice. These staples are provided by FUNDAPROAL, the government institution responsible for food houses.

However, as the woman responsible for this house told me, there is no doubt that without community support we could not advance in this battle. To locate the people with food access problems, FUNDAPROAL joins community organisations such as communal councils and CLAP [Local Supply and Production Committees] to perform a census of people in need. These are then assigned to these food houses so they can get the necessary support.

Each portion consists of three large spoonfuls (80-90 grams) of pasta or rice, 2 spoonfuls of black beans, one small arepa and one glass of fororo. Every two months there is a control of people’s weight and height, and with a smile on her face Yasmila reports that ‘the grandpas have gained weight’.

Plans are also underway to have a vegetable garden under the care of the seniors, where they can grow cucumbers, lettuce, coriander, black beans and try their hand at agriculture.

In Caricuao sector of Caracas, specifically in Los Mangos street, there is another food house that has been running for two months now. This pilot program supplies other local food houses and tends to 170-200 people, mostly boys and girls like those in Chacaito, many of them children of migrants, as well as seniors and disabled people.

The menu is the same as the other houses mentioned, but with a special touch. These four mothers start cooking at 4am to have the food ready to deliver at noon: breakfast, lunch and snacks to go are packaged and delivered in one go. Arepas and sweet arepas, and rice or pasta with black beans are the main staples, with the beans occasionally replaced by sardines, chicha or fororo.

Here, they require every day around 7 to 8 kilos of cornflour, 18 kilos of rice, 11 kilos of black beans, 1 to 1.5 kilos of milk and 20 kilos of pasta. There is a daily register of food deliveries and from time to time there are efforts to measure the weight and size of participants.

The houses get put on the map: the people deploy against hunger

There are currently 3,103 food houses throughout the country. This programme was created by Chávez in 2003, but was relaunched under this new [economic] war. Currently, they tend to 649,254 people thanks to the efforts of 15,115 workers, mostly mothers who have mobilised within their communities to do what is necessary. This is what one such mother, who professes to also be a healer with knowledge of medicinal herbs which she shares while handing out plates, told me.

Other productive initiatives have also got off the ground, such as community bakeries or vegetable gardens or cultural programs, and in October these efforts got a new impetus. Under the slogan ‘feeding the country’, a new policy for nutritional prevention, protection and contention, with a methodology that combines nutrition, comprehensive care and natural medicine, was proposed. This is oriented towards a massive scale, with talk of involving communal councils, communes and the Homes of the Patria scheme in this campaign which, in the end, is about decolonising diets and bodies.

Humanising nutrition as opposed to brutalising it

Brutalizing seems to be a plan that goes beyond macroeconomic indicators and sanctions decrees. Brutalizing the poor, brutalizing those who mobilised tirelessly in Venezuela in the past two decades through hunger, those who had suffered from centuries of misery. This seems to be a well crafted plan that shatters the horizons of a generation of children who lose their sense of time and humanity because of hunger. In the face of that, this popular mobilisation, from below and from the barrio, is waging this tough struggle, one gram at the time, against the hunger war.

There is surely a big discussion on contradictions missing here, but what motivates this text is the lesson from each pot prepared in these food houses. We can fight this hunger-inducing campaign with our dignity and autonomy, not from the false posture of humanitarian aid that to this day has never won a battle, and this is what really matters: winning this battle.

Therefore solidarity needs to stand up and be counted, and this experience of food houses in today’s Venezuela undoubtedly calls powerfully for food sovereignty activism to unite in this war, a war which the mothers that cook day after day know very well and to which they hold the key for victory.

Translated by Ricardo Vaz.

Ana Felicien is a food sovereignty activist, as well as a member of the Venezuela Free from Transgenics and Peoples’ Seeds projects.

This article originally appeared on VenezuelaAnalysis.com.