The New Faces Of Pandemic Food Insecurity: Hungry, Worried ... Yet Generous
Filipino broom maker Gloria Hernandez longs for chicken and milkfish — big milkfish. She can only afford small ones now, and they don't add up to a decent meal. She eats rice with coffee twice a day so she doesn't feel hungry. Fried eggs and bread — those are the foods Nigerian clergyman Femi Oyekan Moses used to eat all the time and misses the most. Now he mainly eats beans and corn and often skips lunch.
Hernandez and Moses are part of an emerging group who could once provide regular meals for themselves and their families but are now struggling because of the pandemic. They're not on the verge of starvation as so many millions are, but they're suffering from what's called "food insecurity" in moderate to severe degrees, unable to afford a balanced and nutritious diet because of income loss and rising prices.
The estimate is that 2.37 billion people worldwide were in that latter category in 2020, according to a July report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the World Food Programme, the World Health Organization and other partners. That's one in every three people, representing an increase of 320 million people in one year. Lockdowns and travel restrictions have eliminated jobs and affected livelihoods, and prices of food in some places have skyrocketed due to shortages and production delays. Families are resorting to cheaper or less healthy foods — or simply eating less.
Women bear the brunt of this crisis, says Ertharin Cousin, former executive director of the World Food Programme and founder and CEO of Food Systems for the Future, a global nonprofit that helps fight malnutrition in low-income communities.
"It's the mother who opens the cupboard and it's empty," she says. "Your child is looking at you saying, 'I'm hungry. What's for dinner?' Food insecurity says you can't answer that question for your child."
Who are these newcomers to food insecurity? Here are profiles from around the world. We asked our interviewees about the jobs they've lost, the family members they are trying to feed — and the favorite foods that are now out of reach.
She can only afford 2 meals a day for herself and her family
When Yroné Camelia Araujo Barreto, 50, sees someone begging in the street, she tries to give what she can — even though she can barely make ends meet as a housecleaner.
"Maybe I don't give them money but I buy them a little bit of bread, an ice cream for a child. I give them a positive gesture so they can go on, so they can fight — and that strengthens me a lot," she says.
It's been a tough year for Barreto. Many of her cleaning jobs have dried up because of the economic stresses of the pandemic. Her onetime clients are often out of work and now clean for themselves, she says. She considered selling bags of candy and fruit to cars stopped at traffic lights, but without health insurance, she doesn't want to risk a COVID-19 infection.
This wasn't the life she planned when she left Venezuela. Barreto came to Ecuador in 2019 to escape her homeland's dire economic situation. She says in Venezuela, she had no money to eat, take the bus or get medicine. At least in Quito she can find work, although without a work visa, she is not legally allowed to work in her profession — a teacher specializing in early education — or any other formal position.
Barreto lives with her son, his wife and their two children, ages 8 and 4. No one in the house eats breakfast anymore, she says. "We eat lunch at 1 p.m." and a late dinner at 8 or 9 p.m. so the kids can "hold on until their next meal," says Barreto.
It distresses her to hear "their tummies' sound" in the morning, she adds, so she tells her grandchildren that lunch is cooking and will be ready soon.
She says she is saddened by her plight. But she is trying to be brave. "Every day I have to show my best face, be happy," she says. "I have family far away. They cannot see me down. They cannot see that I left my country because I had nothing — and now I am in another country and I have nothing."
Photos and reporting by Yolanda Escobar Jimenez
They used to buy bags of rice. Now they buy cups
With his jobs as a house painter and a clergyman, Femi Oyekan Moses could easily support his wife Mary and their six children, between ages 10 and 20. Even school fees for his kids weren't a problem.
After COVID hit, the church closed and the painting jobs dried up. Moses, 57, and his wife had to make the decision to split up their children and send them to live with better-off friends and relatives in Lagos, a three-hour drive from Oyo, where he and his wife live. His two oldest were heading to university, he says, but the financial constraints put a hold on their plans.
Moses did find work selling produce from a farm, but now he makes only about $10 a week compared to $300 pre-pandemic. He used to be able to buy bags of rice and beans for his family. Now he can only afford to buy cups at a time — and sometimes doesn't even have the money for that. Many days, he and his wife skip lunch. Rising food costs add to the problem, he says.
The meal Moses misses most? Fried egg, bread and tea with plenty of creamy milk, he says. A normal meal now is a dish of beans and corn. It's not his favorite, but it's a meal they can afford. He shares the recipe: Boil the beans and corn in water "till it gets soft. Then add salt, palm oil, pepper and onion to it," he says.
Moses is optimistic things will improve — and prays to God to send help. "I can't really give a precise time or date when this [struggle] will end but I'm trusting God to send a helper soon because the situation is terrible."
Photos and reporting by Olu Jameson
NUEVA VIZCAYA, PHILIPPINES
No matter how little you have, 'always feed the children'
Before COVID, 82-year-old Gloria Hernandez earned a living by selling bags of rice harvested by her children, who are farmers. But because their work in the fields has been disrupted by lockdowns, they have been giving her fewer bags.
So Hernandez has taken on a variety of jobs to support herself and her household. Her 52-year-old daughter and her two grandsons, a 15-year-old student and a 22-year-old who works as an unpaid intern at the local municipal office, live with Hernandez and depend on her.
She supplements her income by making and selling walis ting ting, brooms made with coconut fibers. When there's farm work, she takes it, but there hasn't been much during the pandemic.
She gets $10 a month from her government pension, which she uses to buy hypertension medication and milk, but it's still not enough to feed everyone. So sometimes she borrows from loan sharks.
For breakfast and lunch, Hernandez and her daughter eat rice with a little coffee poured on top for flavoring. Dinner is usually dried fish with rice for dinner. They know it's not a healthy diet, but it's better than going hungry, she says. Hernandez yearns for the chicken and fresh fish she used to eat.
Her greatest concern is making sure her two grandsons are fed. "Always feed the children," she says. "No matter how difficult life is, always feed the little ones. We adults can survive." When Gloria and her daughter get vegetables, fish or meat, they give it to the boys.
Photos and reporting by Xyza Cruz Bacani
Columbia, Tennessee (U.S.A.)
Higher bills for basics have sent him to a food pantry giveaway
For the second time during the pandemic, Lloyd Abshier, 70, is lining up at a food pantry giveaway to supplement his family's food supply. The first time he tried, the pantry ran out before his turn.
It's a new experience for Abshier.
A decade ago, he says he had a "good job" as a truck driver, bragging that he "made it to every state you can drive a truck to." Health issues forced him to retire. And his wife is ill and isn't working currently.
The couple has two children, ages 14 and 18.
His family's main source of income is now his Social Security check. That worked out OK until the pandemic hit – and food and gas prices began to rise, he says.
For this reason, Abshier says he has less money to spend — and he's had to ration his budget. He's had to cut the family's grocery purchases by 40% to keep the electricity on in their trailer home. "We've got the light bill," he says. And he just called his cable TV provider to cut the service. "We just cannot afford it."
Abshier and his family have not changed their eating habits too much over the past few months, he says. But they've definitely been eating a lot more ramen noodles because the prices of food at his usual grocery stores have become "outrageous," he adds – especially the price of meat.
Things are looking up for Abshier on this Saturday in early September at a drive-through food bank event. There are about 400 cars in line, and with 34,500 pounds of food available, it appears that everyone will be served. Abshier says he isn't picky when it comes to what they give him. "I don't really know what they got and don't care hat they got. Any little bit helps."
Waiting in line, Abshier expresses his frustration that people like him are struggling to provide food for their family. And he wonders why more people aren't getting the COVID vaccine. His unvaccinated niece is currently in the hospital on a ventilator due to COVID. "Why in the world didn't that girl get her COVID shots?," he says. "She's a nurse! A nurse! And she didn't get her COVID shots."
If more people got the vaccine, he says, maybe the economy would bounce back and food prices might drop.
Photos by Erica Brechtelsbauer. Reporting by Tasha Lemley
BRAZZAVILLE, REPUBLIC OF CONGO
For health reasons she shouldn't skip meals. But she says she has no choice
For Kiali Onzhe Ngssakhes, life was hard enough before the pandemic. She is a 45-year-old single mother who is HIV-positive. She managed to support herself and her daughter as a vendor selling grilled meat.
The market where her stall was located was shut down for a few months at the start of the crisis. When it reopened, she didn't have the funds to get the stall up and running again. So she depends on her family members to give her money. But they're not able to consistently help her, she says.
She used to cook with fresh meat, fish, fruits and vegetables. Now, she buys a cheap local legume and small portions of frozen chicken or snook fish when she can afford them. She staves off hunger with donuts and peanut butter.
She says that she and her 12-year-old daughter are not getting adequate calories or vitamins and minerals. That's especially concerning for Ngssakhes, who needs to eat a balanced diet as a person living with HIV to maintain a healthy immune system.
She describes what she ate on a recent day. "On Friday for breakfast I had nothing to eat. For lunch, I had no food and for dinner me and my daughter bought grilled meat at a local fast-food chain."
Photos and reporting by Victoire Douniama
Beans, biscuits and noodles to stave off hunger — with an occasional serving of chicken for their 6-year-old
When the pandemic hit, the national army put a barbed wire fence around Mohd Ali's neighborhood. The idea was to restrict movement and prevent COVID-19 transmission. For Ali, the fence made it impossible to get to his job as a restaurant dishwasher.
Then after a cycle of lockdowns, the restaurant closed earlier this year.
The job was a good one. Ali, 32, earned $10-12 a day and could support his family. He's been trying to find a new gig, but it's been difficult, he says. The job market is saturated. And he lives in the country without legal permission, making it even harder for him to find work. He and his family came to Malaysia in 2015 to escape the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar.
What's most important to him, he says, is taking care of his pregnant wife and 6-year-old daughter. The family has been living off dwindling savings, food aid from charities organizations and kindly neighbors who occasionally offer provisions.
The family's favorite foods — fried chicken, eggs, fruit and bread — are now out of their budget. They eat mainly beans. They can afford a small amount of chicken but give most of it to their daughter. To avoid hunger pangs, Ali says he fills his stomach with biscuits and instant noodles, but worries that it's not a healthy diet.
Sometimes, he says, he thinks about moving to Milwaukee. It's where his wife's sister lives.
Photos and reporting by Annice Lyn
Too much rice, not enough vegetables
Even before the pandemic, Anna Ottens, a 41-year-old single mom of three, could barely keep her head above water.
For about four years, Ottens has been grappling with burnout from her job as a maternity nurse. The stress of working irregular hours, losing her father and being a single mom took its toll — and she ended up seeking disability and eventually unemployment benefits from the government to feed her children.
She has slowly recovered from the burnout and was just about to look for work when COVID hit. But she no longer wants be a nurse — the irregular hours don't work well when you're a single mom, she says — and starting a new career has been difficult during the pandemic. She is hoping at some point to be an undertaker; she thinks she'd be good at that.
Until she can work again, she's dependent on food donations from a local pantry. But there are few healthy options.
She recalls an incident at the food bank in December 2019. "One time, I was given 5 kg. (11 lbs.) of cookies," says Ottens. "When I told the person I didn't want to give that much unhealthy food to my children, she replied, 'Well, then you don't know what hunger is.' That made me feel so terrible."
"I guess the idea is if you are really struggling, you will eat anything," she adds. "Which is true I guess, but it isn't very nice."
Photos by Julia Gunther. Reporting and text by Nick Schonfeld
Filling up on so much bread that he can't take it anymore
"Living on the street, you get used to eating [only] when you have something to eat," says Antonio Carlos "Carlinhos" da Silva Costa, a homeless 49-year-old flanelinha — the nickname for an informal worker who cleans and guards people's cars.
It wasn't always that way. Costa and his wife, Rosa, earned enough money to afford a small apartment and "get by," he says. But she died a few months ago from cancer.
This loss, combined with the pandemic, have pushed Costa from stability to street life. He used to live on about $150 a month. Now he lives on about $40 – much of which comes from government emergency aid.
"Now I'm alone and I can't [afford] rent anymore," he says.
Or food. He fills up when he can since he is never sure where his next meal will come from. He makes a little money from his job, but things have slowed down during the pandemic. So he gets ready-to-eat dishes and soups from nonprofit groups and churches, and sometimes the car owners give him food. He also fills up on bread because it's cheap — so much bread, he says. He laughs and says he can't take it anymore.
With Rosa gone and work hard to come by, he spends his time with his dog, Galego — the only one he has to take care of, says Costa.
Photos and reporting by Antonello Veneri
CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA
'Their education is more important than our stomachs'
Aviwe Maphini, 30, was moving up in her career as a lawyer. She even got a raise. She and her husband, a policeman, made enough to send their 6-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter to "a good school," she says. And the couple could even give money to their siblings.
They also had enough disposable income to treat themselves. "I was able to take my family out on occasions — to the beach, to restaurants," she says. "We used to go to Bonnaire's [a pizza franchise]. The kids always looked forward to payday because they knew we would take them out just to spoil them."
Maphini lost her job at the beginning of the pandemic. "[My supervisor] called me into a meeting and told me I was going to be in the first phase of retrenchments," she says. "I was so sad and distressed. The first thing I thought of was my kids."
Thankfully, she says, her husband was able to keep his job — and his salary keeps them afloat. "He's the one who's repaying the house loan, buying the kids' clothes and paying for their school fees."
Instead of heading into a law firm each day, Maphini volunteers at a soup kitchen three days a week. She can bring some of the leftover food home.
The family's meals have changed dramatically. "We're eating a lot of rice, soup and potatoes," says Maphini. Sometimes she and her husband skip meals.
Her biggest goal, she says, is making sure her kids stay in school. "Their education is more important than our stomachs. As long as we can still afford something to eat at the end of the day, it's OK."
Photos and reporting by Tommy Trenchard
A comforting potato dish is getting him through
Aloo bhaji, a potato dish, is Salman Khan Rashid's comfort food. "[The potato] has been the one vegetable I was eating before the pandemic that I am eating now as well — perhaps in a smaller quantity, but the preparation is still the same. It gives me some feeling of normalcy."
Rashid, 24, lives with his mother and three older sisters in their 20s. When the city shut down due to the coronavirus, he and his sisters all lost their jobs. Rashid was working as a golf coach at a Mumbai sports club, and his sisters worked at a bank, at a car dealership and as a tutor. The family is now surviving on savings.
Rashid says for now, everyone at home is rationing the food they eat. They're not sure how much longer they will be unemployed. It might even be another year, he says. He's worried what will happen if another COVID-19 surge hits India.
"I try to save leftovers from lunch so I can eat that for dinner. If there aren't any, then I eat one egg," he says, his go-to cheap and filling food. On a recent day, his diet included a cup of tea and roti, Indian bread, for breakfast; roti with aloo bhaji for lunch; and a boiled egg for dinner. The family members go to bed hungry much of the time, he says.
Despite Rashid's increasingly dire situation, he recognizes his family is lucky. "Even with the little I have, I believe in giving to people who have nothing and are destitute," he says. And when he is able, he gives a little food or a bit of money to people in need.
Photos and reporting by Viraj Nayar
Many of the photographers are part of the Everyday Projects community, contributing to Instagram accounts from countries in Asia, Africa, Central and South America, North America and Europe. Visuals edited by Ben de la Cruz, Ian Morton and Nicole Werbeck. Text by Suzette Lohmeyer. Translation of Brazilian interview by Marco Storel. Text edited by Malaka Gharib and Marc Silver. Special thanks to Caroline Drees, senior director for field safety and security at NPR.
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