Why that simple meal costs more than you think

A report by a United Nations agency has revealed that millions of people, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, still find it difficult to put a simple meal on the table.

Researchers at the World Food Programme calculated how much a plate of food would cost someone in New York if they were paying the same percentage of income as the residents of 36 countries. With New Yorkers paying $1.26 (Sh137), the equivalent cost in Kenya would be $12.84 (Sh1,393) for a simple meal.

The report titled The Cost of A Plate of Food–2020 reveals that a basic meal is beyond the reach of millions even as the Covid-19 pandemic joins conflict, climate change and economic troubles in pushing up levels of hunger around the world.

It highlights the countries where a simple meal such as rice and beans costs the most when compared with people’s incomes.

And for the third consecutive year, South Sudan tops the list with basic ingredients costing a staggering 186 per cent of a person’s daily income.

The equivalent cost of a meal for a New Yorker would be $392.82 (Sh42,609).

In the report, released to mark the World Food Day yesterday, sub-Saharan Africa in particular stands out with 17 out of the top 20 countries in the report coming from this region. Among the reasons given for this include a high dependency on food imports and on informal labour.

This third edition of the WFP’s The Cost of A Plate of Food report (formerly called Counting the Beans) takes an estimated per capita average income across each country and calculates what percentage people must spend for a basic meal, some beans or lentils, for instance, and a carbohydrate matching local preferences.

The price someone in New York might pay was calculated by applying the meal-to-income ratio for someone in a developing country to a consumer in the US State.

It is something that many of us might take for granted. In New York, for example, ingredients for a simple meal — perhaps a soup or a simple stew — costs just 0.6 per cent of someone’s income.

Contrast this with South Sudan where we have seen that a shopper would have to spend nearly 200 per cent of their income to afford the same meal. This difference brings into sharp focus the huge inequalities at play between those people in developing countries and others in more prosperous parts of the world.

The report says conflict and climate change have long affected people’s ability to afford food across multiple countries, as they are driven from their land and livelihoods and left unable to produce or buy the produce they need to feed their families.

“This new report exposes the destructive impact of conflict, climate change and economic crises, now compounded by Covid-19, in driving up hunger,” said WFP executive director David Beasley.

He continued: “It’s the most vulnerable people who feel the worst effects. Their lives were already on the edge – prior to the coronavirus pandemic we were looking at the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II – and now their plight is so much worse as the pandemic threatens nothing less than a humanitarian catastrophe.”

The report highlights conflict as a central driver for hunger in many countries, as it forced people from their homes, land and jobs, drastically reducing incomes and the availability of affordable food.

The close connection between food security and peace was underlined last week when the WFP was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its work in fighting hunger.

The agency says that in South Sudan, violence in the east has already displaced more than 60,000 people and is crippling harvests and livelihoods. This has combined with Covid-19 and climate shock to create the threat of famine.

The WFP also estimates that the lives and livelihoods of up to 270 million people will be under severe threat this year unless immediate action is taken to tackle the pandemic.

Burkina Faso was featured for the first time as the number of people facing crisis levels of hunger has tripled to 3.4 million, while famine threatens 11,000 living in the northern provinces. A surge in conflicts along with climate change are mainly to blame.

Burundi is also on the index, as political instability, steep declines in remittances and disruptions to trade and employment leave it exposed to growing hunger.

Haiti, too, featured among the top 20, with consumers spending more than a third of their daily incomes on a plate of food – the equivalent of $74 (Sh8,035) for someone in New York. Imports account for more than half of food and 83 per cent of rice consumed in the country, making it vulnerable to inflation and price volatility in international markets, especially during crises such as the current global pandemic.

“People in urban areas are now highly susceptible too, with Covid-19 leading to huge rises in unemployment and rendering people powerless to use the markets they depend on for food. For millions of people, missing a day’s wages means missing a day’s worth of food, for themselves and their children. This can also cause rising social tensions and instability,” said Mr Beasley.

The WFP’s support includes providing food and cash assistance, and helping governments extend their own safety nets. In South Sudan, on top of regular assistance to five million people, Beasley said WFP will assist an additional 1.6 million – mostly in urban settings.

This report highlights the work that still needs to be done, with multiple pressures continuing to put affordable food beyond the reach of millions. Only when this changes can the goal of a zero-hunger world truly be realised.

[The writer is a 2019/2020 Bertha Fellow]

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