In Venezuela, 8 million people eat two or fewer meals a day. For many, this presents two options: go to Colombia in order to survive, or stay in Venezuela and die of hunger. For some mothers, staying is not an option. Stories from a community kitchen in Cucuta.
In Bed 306 of the Erasmo Meoz University Hospital (HUEM by its Spanish acronym) in Cucuta, Colombia, a Venezuelan girl just a year and three months old is fighting to recover. On the 14th of April she was brought into the health centre weighing seven kilograms and measuring 74 centimeters. The reason for her consultation? “She's started swelling up”, said her mother. The diagnosis? Severe acute malnutrition, risk of stunted growth, pulmonary infection, viral dermatitis, stomatitis, anemia, neglect, and abandonment. On the 9th of May another 4 children were hospitalised with similar diagnoses.
The mother cites the humanitarian in crisis in Venezuela as the cause of her daughter's condition. Earning so little, she struggled to feed her child. She didn’t have enough to give her daughter milk every day, and those days that could, she would mix goat or cow milk with water. Pumpkin soup with rice, she said, was the most common meal in her child's diet.
For 89.4% of the population, family income is not enough to pay for food.Venezuela Living Conditions Survey 2017
This scene has been repeated hundreds of times in the last year as the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela reaches new heights. In January, UNICEF announced that “there are clear signs that the crisis is limiting children’s access to quality health services, medicines and food”, reflected in the undeniable rise in the number of children suffering malnutrition. The absence of official figures that would help shed light on the magnitude of the problem has led a number of civil society organisations, such as 'Caritas de Venezuela', to implement their own monitoring systems. In their fourth report of 2017, carried out between May and August, the organisation stated that in the J.M. de Los Rios Children's Hospital in Caracas alone, the admission of children suffering severe malnutrition rose 260% compared with the same time period in previous years.
In October 2016, Caritas began studying three indicators measuring the dietary and nutritional situation in the 44 poorest parishes across ten different states in Venezuela. Project coordinator Susana Rafalli affirms that at the beginning of the study the level of severe malnutrition (the most serious grade) amongst children under five was at 8%. In a year that figure doubled.
80% of homes in Venezuela suffer from food insecurityVenezuela Living Conditions Survey 2017
In their August 2017 report, they found that 68% of the children evaluated either had, or were at risk of developing, a nutritional deficit. 14.5% were suffering moderate or severe malnutrition, 21% had mild malnutrition, and 32.5% were at risk. Only 32% had no nutritional deficit at all.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), when the prevalence of malnutrition in a country exceeds 15%, it is suffering a nutritional emergency. “Right now we are at 16%. This is an emergency”, states Rafalli.
A report published last year by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) on the "Panorama of Food and Nutrition Security in Latin America and the Caribbean", found that undernourishment rose 3.9% in Venezuela between 2014 and 2016, amounting to an additional 1.3 million undernourished Venezuelans. In the period from 2013-2015 there were already 2.8 million undernourished people in the country.
In Venezuela the buildings aren't destroyed, nor are there suicide bombers or aerial bombardments. But there is widespread hunger, as devastating as war itself. It is a hunger that consumes the weakest: the children. The question posed is: leave in order to survive, or stay and die of hunger?
Yannela Pulido, Fabiola Gonzalez, and Mercedes Garcia all fled Venezuela for Colombia so as not to have see their children collapse with hunger. When we interviewed them for this report in the second week of May 2018, the three had arrived, respectively, two days, two weeks, and two months earlier at 'la Casa de Paso Divina Providencia', a community kitchen located in the municipality of Villa del Rosario, in North Santander.
All three were received in the same way: with two meals, breakfast and lunch. Father Jose David Cañas of the Diocese of Cúcuta, together with his team, has been handing out these meals to Venezuelan immigrants since June of last year. Although two thousand people come to the kitchen every day, Yannela, Fabiola and Mercedes have never run into each other. Yet their stories share many similarities: all three, driven by hunger, crossed from San Antonia del Tachira in Venezuela towards Villa del Rosario, and then towards the kitchen of Father Jose, where they were given bread and a chocolate drink for breakfast, and beans, rice, plantain, meat and salad for lunch.
6 out of every 10 Venezuelans have lost approximately 11 kilos in the last year due to hunger.Venezuela Living Conditions Survey 2017
In Venezuela, just one lunch can cost 800,000 bolivares, and yet the monthly minimum wage is 3,000,000, meaning that to feed a family and buy a single basket of basic food supplies, one would need to earn 300 minimum wages. For the last two years, the food supply in Venezuela has been insufficient to meet the needs of the citizens. The average caloric requirement for an adult is 2100 calories a day but, Susana Rafalli affirms, Venezuelans live, on average, with 1900.
International standards suggest that good nutrition is based on the consumption of between nine and twelve different nutritional groups. In 2016, according to the studies by Caritas, in the poorest parishes of Venezuela people consumed food from between eight and nine of these different groups. In 2017, these same people ate from just three to four, with tubers, maize, grains, oils and sugars being the most common. “High-quality protein, such as meat, eggs, dairy products, fruits and vegetables, which are fundamental for providing vitamins and minerals, have all disappeared. This is extremely serious in terms of nutritional quality,” says Rafalli.
Food has not been lacking at 'la Casa de Paso Divina Providencia', however, since it was founded almost a year ago to help Venezuelans in need. “Pope Francis asked us to take care of the migrants and we have done that. We thought we would be serving 100 lunches a day, but today (feeding 2,000 people a day) we are setting an example for the rest of the world. God is without limits,” says Father Cañas.
The doctor María de los Ángeles López, who carries out consultations with the children and mothers that come to the kitchen, states that the majority of the Venezuelans there arrive underweight, and many have respiratory problems. It is evident that, for many, receiving a plate of food is the primary motivation to cross the bridge into Colombia.
Yannela Pulido's daughter is 18 months old. She weighed 3 kilos when she was born. She is now at 8.5 kilos, though at her age she should weigh 12.
“My daughter is 18 months old, yet she wears clothes for 9-month-olds, and even they do not fit her. When she was born she looked like a little tamale, unable to sit up. Later, when she turned one, she started to get thinner. Her low weight worries me. She cries constantly. It's because she's hungry. I stopped giving her milk when she was 9 months old because I couldn't afford it. For breakfast I would make her an arepa, for lunch it was rice, and then for dinner fried plantain. Three months ago I left Barinas, and now I live close to the bridge on the Venezuelan side. Every day I cross over, looking for food for her and work for me. In Venezuela we had a small patch of land but in order to be able to move I sold it. I spent that money on food, but I could only buy a little. I planted some yuca, plantain and papaya, but I realised that it wasn't enough to live off. I couldn't count on the box of food that the Venezuelan government sent either because it only came every two or three months. And my daughter's father started off helping out, but he soon stopped. When I arrived in Cucuta I was selling coffee, but the thermos broke. Right now I'm looking for a job. I know that as soon as I have money I'll use it for my daughter, and she can spend the day eating. She can eat bread with butter again. At least now I have anti-parasite medication and some vitamins I can give her, so that she can start gaining some weight again. I'm going to try to come every day because here you can find anything. In Barinas there's none of that. Even in Caracas there's no food.”
Fabiola Gonzalez's son is a year and seven months old. Out of his siblings, he was the most affected by the crisis in Venezuela. He is the correct weight for his age: 9.5 kilos.
“Since I arrived in Colombia my three children haven't gone hungry. In Venezuela we normally ate cambur (plantain), which I boiled or fried in butter. With 5 kilos of cambur we could eat twice. They asked me 'cambur again Mum?', but they ate it. What else could I give them, when selling paledonias (cookies) wouldn't earn me enough to buy a kilo of pasta or rice? In Trujillo I didn't have any other option but to go round asking people for fruit or cow's milk. When we couldn't count on that any more we resorted to cambur. The children started losing weight. I used to weigh 90 kilos and I dropped to 49. Thanks to God, we have more than enough of the food here that we lacked there, and we can eat breakfast and lunch. Two weeks ago I arrived in Cucuta with my uncle, and we realised that here we could have enough to sustain ourselves. I started selling cookies and I make 10,000 pesos a day. With that I pay for a room and I have enough left over for dinner. Even the smallest of my children now gets his milk. I can see my son recovering. Who isn’t doing well is my mum. I left her in Venezuela and she's starving.”
Mercedes Garcia travelled to Cucuta from Caracas with her 7-month-old grandson in order to be able to feed him.
“Two months ago we only had two meals a day. We had forgot about breakfast long ago. We've had some bad experiences in Colombia, but this place has been amazing for my child: he's chubby and beautiful! When we arrived he was thin and sad. Now he's flying. He's more or less walking already! He drinks all the oat-drink, chocolate milk, and even coffee that they give him: he'll grow up to be a strong man. He learned right away to drink whatever milk he was given. Thank god he was born with a strong stomach. Cream of rice cost 300,000 bolivares, which I couldn't afford with what I earned as a saleswoman in the shopping centre. By the end we were just eating yucca and plantain. And the little one didn't know what it was to eat sugar or milk. Although in Colombia it's difficult for me to work because I have to look after him, I don't regret bringing him. When I can, I wash clothes here and I'm saving money to bring my two daughters over. I ask myself how the little one would be now if my daughter, who's 16 years old, would have not been able to look after him. 'Mum, take the baby with you. Don't leave him with me because he's going to go hungry,' she told me. And I took him”.
Renata Sanchez lived in Valles del Tuy, in the state of Miranda, and emigrated to Cucuta in February in search of food. The first time she ate at 'la Casa de La Divina Providencia' they gave her meat. It had been nearly a year since she had eaten any protein. Her 15-month-old daughter, who should weight 10.5 kilos, weighs just 8.5.