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Why the kids of Venezuela aren't getting enough to eat

Two of the children who came for a meal at a soup kitchen in Caracas run by the charity Alimenta la Solidaridad. It serves about 100 people and operates Monday through Friday.
John Otis for NPR
Two of the children who came for a meal at a soup kitchen in Caracas run by the charity Alimenta la Solidaridad. It serves about 100 people and operates Monday through Friday.

CARACAS, Venezuela – At a soup kitchen in a hillside slum overlooking Caracas, cooks prepare stewed pork, rice and salad for about 50 children who are weighed and measured while waiting for their meals.

As a volunteer uses a tape measure to check the circumference of a little girl's arm, her mother, Eileen Cabello, expresses alarm. "Look how thin her arm is," she says. "She is nearly 5 but lacks the height and weight of a 5-year-old."

In fact, many kids here are small for their age, reflecting a growing crisis of malnutrition across Venezuela. In a survey published in May 2021, the development group Caritas found that 42% of over 46,000 measurements taken from children in Venezuela's poorest neighborhoods reflect stunting or wasting. That means the children are too short or underweight for their age.

It's a problem that must be dealt with immediately, says Susana Rico, acting director of the United Nations World Food Program in Venezuela.

"If you miss good nutrition up to age 6, most likely you will not develop your full physical and cognitive potential," she says.

She adds that the rising number of malnourished kids spells deep trouble for Venezuela's future.

"If you do not grow up to be as strong and healthy as you were genetically planned to be, you most likely will not be able to produce as much," Rico says, referring to physical abilities. "The same thing goes for your intellectual growth. So the economic effects are felt in 15 years, 20 years, when these children enter the workforce."

In many cases, Venezuelan kids fill up on cheaper foods like bread and cereal because their parents can't afford meat and dairy products, says pediatrician Dr. Lisber Guerra, who treats malnourished kids and is examining a rail-thin boy in her Caracas office.

"A 7-year-old should weigh between 46 and 51 pounds. But he weighs about 39 pounds," says Guerra, who urges the boy's grandmother — and guardian — to put a priority on obtaining more milk and other wholesome foods for him.

A cook pours beef stew into a large container for distribution to malnourished people.
/ John Otis for NPR
/
John Otis for NPR
A cook pours beef stew into a large container for distribution to malnourished people.

Venezuela's food crisis was largely brought on by its authoritarian socialist government, say political analysts. Unlike many other nations plagued by malnutrition, Venezuela is not at war and boasts an abundance of fertile land that could be used to grow food crops. The country also stands atop the world's largest proven oil reserves.

But years of mismanagement and corruption have brought on its worst economic meltdown in history, analysts say. Price controls and the seizure of farms and factories by the government led to food shortages. Hyperinflation made it harder to afford groceries.

To alleviate the suffering, the government says it hands out food to about 7 million Venezuelan households. But the economic crisis, aggravated by U.S. economic sanctions targeting the oil industry, has forced the government to cut back on food aid. When it began in 2016, the food distribution program provided twice-monthly boxes with rice, beans and other staples. In a survey of over 17,000 households last year, however, 60% of recipients said food boxes were arriving once every three months or even less frequently.

All of these factors have led to widespread malnutrition. The U.N. in 2020 published a report estimating that nearly one in three Venezuelans, over 9 million people, was "food insecure." Rico says this means that they were either eating fewer than three meals per day or didn't know where their next meal would come from.

President Nicolás Maduro was initially reluctant to seek outside help. That, analysts say, is due to his government's strategy to use food distribution as a means to coerce and intimidate the population into supporting him, thus strengthening political control over the country. In addition, says Rico of the World Food Program: "It's difficult to accept that the people in your country are in a situation of emergency ... if you are the one who in any way could have prevented it."

In April 2021 Maduro made an exception. He signed an agreement for the World Food Program to hand out meals to about 1.5 million pre-school children and children with disabilities in the poorest areas of Venezuela.

In addition, private charities are stepping up.

A volunteer fills up tupperware containers with beef stew.
/ John Otis for NPR
/
John Otis for NPR
A volunteer fills up tupperware containers with beef stew.

At the soup kitchen in the Caracas slum, one of hundreds around the country run by the Venezuelan charity Alimenta la Solidaridad, Minivette Rondón keeps an eye on her 6-year-old twin daughters. She tears up as she recounts sending her girls to bed without supper two or three times a week.

"This never happened before," says Rondón, an unemployed single mom. "It is really painful. They were getting thin, and I mean really thin."

But the twins are among the lucky ones. For the past two weeks they've been eating lunch at the soup kitchen and now, Rondón says, her twins are putting on weight.

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