The worsening pangs of hunger

  • Schoolchildren and pregnant mothers among those worst affected
  • Adult population also likely to become frail and sickly due to malnutrition

By Sumudu Chamara


Although it is uncommon to hear claims of possible famines in the present day and age, food insecurity is still one of the main pressing issues that the economic crisis has worsened, while malnutrition poses a real threat to a considerable share of the population. 

Reports of schoolchildren fainting in school allegedly due to hunger or malnutrition and claims that pregnant women are not receiving proper nutrition due to food insecurity are abundant. Some of these allegations have been rejected by the Government while it has assured that necessary steps would be taken to look into the quality of meals provided to schoolchildren and pregnant women. The Government appears to be confident that malnutrition is not a pressing issue and is manageable, and the President has pledged the Government’s commitment to providing a balanced diet for children.


Hunger among schoolchildren


However, according to parents of some schoolchildren, the situation in their homes as far as food is concerned is not improving; food inflation and decreased income are the main reasons. U.D. Samaratne*, a 44-year-old building painter, is one such parent who told The Morning that providing his two daughters with nutritious food has become an arduous task.

“Forget about giving them nutritious food. Having nutritious food is not a topic we, poor people, can even think about in this economy. Making sure that they do not starve is all I can afford to do with what I earn,” he lamented.

According to Samaratne, during the past three months, he had had to cut down on the amount of money allocated for food along with several other expenses. He said that his 13- and 12-year-old daughters are severely affected by this situation.

“My wife and I are adults, and we understand what has happened to our family’s economy. We understand that although food is a necessary expense, it is also one of the most unbearable ones. Even though we understand this situation, our daughters are too young to understand it. All they know is that we do not have enough money to buy food as we did before. 

“In that sense, I think they are more affected by the economic decline than my wife and I. We used to give them cheese whenever our children wanted, but now it is a luxury we cannot afford. We gave them milk every morning, but now we do it only when they ask for milk. Fish and meat were always a part of our meal, but now we have fish or meat only once or twice a week. 

“The sad fact about this situation is that we do not have alternatives. Usually, when the prices of certain types of food go up, prices of other food commodities go down. But, now, the prices of everything have increased. There is no affordable food anymore. We just have to buy what is least expensive.”

He added that this situation has affected his daughters’ education as well.

“My daughters do not ask for any particular type of food. They usually eat what they are given. However, it has become obvious that they are getting tired of eating rice, dahl, and coconut sambal, which we eat on most days of the week. We used to give them pocket money for lunch or snacks, so they could have whatever they wanted. But, now, for at least four days a week, we prepare some food at home for them to have during their lunch breaks. We do that because we cannot afford to give them Rs. 150 each a day anymore. Even if we did, they cannot purchase half the amount of food they used to buy earlier this year. 

“My children are puzzled about these changes. During the past three months, when I did not have any work, there were days we did not have any food or any money to buy food. We did not send our children to school on those days. We did not want them to feel embarrassed during the lunch break when other students eat something.”

In response to a question regarding whether those difficulties have become manageable, Samaratne said that the situation has, in fact, worsened, mainly due to his income declining.

He explained: “I used to earn more than Rs. 3,000 a day until May of this year. But, the economy collapsed, prices of everything that is required for my profession increased, and my clients postponed some contracts indefinitely. Now, on a good day, I earn around Rs. 2,500-3,000. However, I do not have work as often as before, and therefore, I have had to spend the little money I earn sparingly. Although food is important, it is expensive.”

Samaratne’s experience is similar to what Anandi Perera*, a 36-year-old mother of a seven-year-old male child, has had to go through. She said that the prevailing situation is such that parents have had to starve to ensure that their children have adequate food.

“Prices of milk powder, fish, chicken, and cheese have increased by almost threefold. A middle-class worker can barely afford vegetables. Trying to replace (the said) animal products with vegetables is almost impossible. This is absolutely not a good situation for growing children.”

She added that even though her son does not seem to be malnourished, he will be affected by malnutrition soon if the Government does not take the necessary action to address food inflation. This risk, she said, is a nationwide issue that affects adults as well, not just children.

“All we are talking about is how many children fainted and how many of them are malnourished. Even the Government seems to be trying to cover up the real situation by providing a meal to schoolchildren. But, that is not nearly enough to deal with the situation. Even though we are talking about providing a nutritious meal to children, which I think is important as they are still growing, the risk of being malnourished is an issue the entire country is facing. Adults are not exempt from malnutrition just because they have stopped growing. 

“Now, in my family, there are days I do not have breakfast at all, in order to ensure that my son and husband have enough food for breakfast and lunch. If the prevailing economic situation is not dealt with soon, not only schoolchildren, even adults will face malnutrition very soon. The result will be a malnourished young generation and a sick and weak adult generation, who will become a burden on the country.”

When asked about the food provided to her son, Perera revealed: “There are many days we could only provide my son with rice and one curry such as dahl. Some days, it is just two slices of bread and onion sambal. We ran out of milk powder a week ago, but I still have not been able to manage the family’s expenses to buy a packet of milk powder. When we buy fish or meat, we buy the bare minimum that is sufficient for my son. My husband and I do not eat leftovers if there are any. Instead, we put it in the fridge to give to our son the next day. We have not given him a piece of cheese in two months.”

When questioned about how they are planning to fulfil the nutritional needs of their children, both Samarante and Perera said that they feel hopeless about it and that they are trying their best to provide their children with the best food they can afford regardless of nutritional properties. 


Nutrition during pregnancy 


When it comes to rising food inflation, food insecurity among pregnant women of underprivileged families is also a pressing concern. While the Government has assured the implementation of various programmes to ensure their nutritional needs are met, various reports claim that pregnant women are not receiving adequate aid. 

In this regard, 26-year-old Janaki Fernando* noted that while various organisations have come forward to support pregnant women, support is inadequate given the fact that inflation is on the rise and families’ incomes are drastically declining. 

“I am not afraid for my life, as I am a grown woman. But if my body cannot nurture the child I am carrying, it could have a massive negative impact on the child in the future. I am trying my best to consume nutritious food. However, in the current economic situation, having three meals a day itself has become a challenge.”

She added: “To make matters worse, the charges of various tests, as well as the prices of various vitamins I am supposed to take, have increased by 200-300%. Those are not expenses I can evade or postpone. On top of that, having nutritious food has become a challenge, because all types of food have become expensive. To manage these expenses, my husband had to find a part-time job as a driver. But, still, what he earns is not enough. Although I received some packets of food from several charitable groups, those were barely enough to last a week. 

“The Government had also said that it is planning to launch a similar project. However, I cannot wait until such promises are implemented or rely on the Government to assist pregnant women in the long run. I think my family has to look after ourselves.”

When asked about how she fulfils her nutritional needs as a pregnant woman, she said: “It is very challenging. I come from a very ordinary family and neither my husband nor I have any savings. If he earns, we can eat. I have some food items that I have saved, but that is not nearly enough, given the fact that I will not deliver the baby for another four months and that I have to consume nutritious food even after the delivery, especially when I breastfeed the child. 

“I try my best not to waste any food we have. At the same time, I have started growing some vegetables in the garden, hoping that it would be helpful. Some of my relatives also help. But, they are also dealing with the high cost of living, and their support is not something I can rely on in the long run. I also have various fruits which I can find from my village.”

All those who spoke with The Morning pointed out that the Government must take immediate steps to address skyrocketing food inflation, and suggested that special schemes be introduced to provide food for children, pregnant women, and the elderly.