Fighting Food Insecurity: it’s not just about improving yields or market access

Less than half of El Salvador’s population lives in rural areas (37-42%, depending on who’s counting). Of those 2.4 million people, the majority of them are subsistence farmers – they grow the food they need to eat. Yet they are not getting the food and nutrition they need. Sadly, though, in many cases, they are not lacking food and nutrition because the food they harvest is poor quality, poor yield, or lacking in variety. It is because they need to sell their food in order to pay for other basic necessities such as water, electricity and maybe gas. And even more disconcerting: it is because they are using that money for somewhat luxury items, such as saldo (minutes) for the cellular phones, or to buy sodas at the local tiendas. Some believe this pattern is developed when these rural people do have work – perhaps during a harvest season, or if they obtain some other temporary job – they do have a little extra money to spend on gaseosas or chips, but when the money dries up, they don’t break their habits. According to the World Food Program (WFP), 82% of the agricultural producers in El Salvador are subsistence farmers; those that spend their days among their crops meant primarily for their own consumption.

These 325,000 families plant primarily corn, millet and beans on often marginal lands with little mechanization to assist them. Chickens or pigs are also often kept by families to help add to their diet, but these animals need to be fed and given clean water to drink. This water can cost a family about three dollars a month, which pales in comparison to the twenty dollars monthly rent they pay for the land they farm. An additional fifteen dollars a month is often spent on buying firewood – a necessity to cook their food. El Salvador is so severely deforested that families can no longer easily go out and collect the wood they need nearby. Wood collection is an occupation of a few people who devote their entire days to scouring the land for the remaining wood, and hauling it to the villages to sell to those who can’t do without it. In these parts of the country, it is simple to see who has family members sending remittances back from the United States: just look at the houses. “Casas de Remesas” (remittance houses) are typically made of concrete and might even be two stories with a fresh coat of paint, in contrast to the more common stick-mud-plastic-corrugated tin houses traditional of the campo.

Village life: it may have better air than in the cities, but the opportunities are few and far between.

All of the monthly costs previously cited require families to keep money coming in, and in tiny pueblos far from city centers, employment is beyond scarce. So they sell the food they grow – food that was intended for their own consumption. However, if they don’t sell that food, they can’t pay rent, or for water, or have a way to cook food. No matter which way you look at it, it’s an unending and often vicious cycle that leaves families struggling to stay afloat, never mind get ahead. Although many families have all of the ingredients to eat a balanced diet (beans, rice, even meat, some vegetables), these ingredients unfortunately don’t always stay in their hands, and so we have many rural families malnourished and undernourished. The problem needs to be addressed not just with giving families seeds or subsidized gas, but with greater community development, and -of course- education.

*Information taken from El Diario de Hoy, 13 May 2011, pages 2-4, by Ivonne Vasquez.

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