Venezuelan food crisis reflected in skipped meals and weight loss

People line up to buy basic food and household items outside a supermarket in Caracas, on September 28, 2016.

Story highlights

  • Study's authors estimate that 9.6 million Venezuelans eat two or fewer daily meals
  • More families substituting usual foodstuffs for cheaper alternatives

(CNN)A mother contemplates how she does her food shopping amid shortages and high inflation in Venezuela: Whatever is cheapest in the season is what her children eat, substituting one thing for another and in much smaller portions than before.

"What I have at home is enough to give them a plain arepa, and it's very little for each one," the woman, Grecia Gonzalez, told CNN en Español, referring to the traditional white corn cakes. "And for me, I don't care about going without eating. As a mother you're always thinking about feeding (your children)."
    New data from an annual national survey by three of Venezuela's major universities and other research groups has found that Gonzalez's experience is becoming more common in the oil-rich South American country.
    Families are substituting usual foodstuffs for cheaper and more available alternatives, the National Survey of Living Condition, known by its Spanish initials ENCOVI, found. Meat and chicken, which in 2015 were the fourth- and fifth-most purchased grocery products, respectively, were overtaken in 2016 by vegetables and tubers.
    And like Gonzalez and her children, the survey found more Venezuelans are skipping meals and the percentage of malnourished is growing.
    The number of survey respondents who reported eating two or fewer meals per day nearly tripled from the previous year's survey, rising from 11.3% in 2015 to 32.5% in 2016. Based on the data, the authors of the study estimate that some 9.6 million Venezuelans eat two or fewer daily meals.

    Shortage in basic goods

    In addition to food staples, there have been shortages on everything from basic goods such as toilet paper to healthcare supplies. Venezuela can't pay to import goods because its government is desperately strapped for cash after years of mismanagement of its funds, heavy spending on poorly run government programs, and lack of investment on its oil fields. The numbers from the survey provide context, or at least a snapshot, of a humanitarian crisis in Venezuela.
    "Sometimes I get full, but sometimes not," Gonzalez's 10-year-old daughter, who has been diagnosed with moderate malnutrition, said. "Rice with salad, sometimes... and in the morning we eat rice cakes or a small arepa. It's been awhile since I've eaten meat, chicken."
    The effects of the shortages and inflation appear to be taking a physical toll, too.
    According to the survey, 72.7% of respondents said they lost weight in the past year, dropping an average of 19 pounds (8.7 kg). The average weight loss was slightly higher among those living in extreme poverty.

    Maduro increases food vouchers

    Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, who in the past has denied that there is a crisis in his country, on Sunday announced an increase of 42% for the food vouchers some Venezuelan workers receive.
    In 2015, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization recognized Venezuela for its efforts to combat hunger. The country's vice president at the time, in accepting the honor, said more than 95% of Venezuelans were eating three meals per day. That year's ENCOVI survey estimated that figure to be closer to 89%.
    Besides food, the ENCOVI survey studied a wide range of issues, including education, public safety, unemployment and poverty.