Beirut, Lebanon – For the past decade, Sawa For Development and Aid has delivered iftar evening meals to approximately 4,000 fast-breaking families during Ramadan in eastern Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley.
But this year the NGO’s busy kitchen had to work non-stop, cooking for at least 7,000 Syrian refugees and Lebanese families.
“This year is a little different,” said Doha Adi, program manager of the NGO, with a sigh to Al Jazeera.
“We offer hot meals for areas that are far from our kitchen [in the Bekaa Valley]We never thought that we would ever have to intervene in Beirut to deliver food packages to homes in Beirut and Tripoli, ”she said.
But it’s not just Syrian refugees and vulnerable Lebanese across the country who are asking Sawa for development and help with meals this Ramadan.
“We are being contacted by the municipalities in Bekaa governorate to support the Lebanese budget this year,” said Adi.
“They send us lists of vulnerable households and ask if we can support them.”
The Lebanese pound has lost around 90 percent of its value since the end of 2019 and is still falling.
In the past 18 months, more than half of the Lebanese population has fallen into poverty.
In addition, food prices have skyrocketed – even for the most modest of household foods.
Lebanon imports most of its goods, including food, and food inflation in Lebanon is the highest in the world, according to the United Nations – as food prices have soared over 400 percent.
“What can you get with it?”
Calculations by Nasser Yassin, Professor of Politics and Planning at the American University of Beirut, have shown that making an ordinary fatty salad – consisting of basic ingredients such as lettuce, tomatoes, radishes and parsley – is 210 percent more expensive this year.
Yassin has denied tabloid speculation that Lebanon may experience famine, but is still alarmed by the country’s food security crisis, saying Lebanese households are likely to switch to less nutritious and diverse diets as many of the 1.5 million Syrian ones Refugees in the country were forced to make it.
“Instead of eating three times [a day]They would eat twice, but most of the time they would choose cheaper options, so more carbohydrates, less meat and protein, ”said Yassin.
Sawa for Development and Aid has raised more than $ 12,000 in donations for its Ramadan meals so far this year, but the charity has felt the effects of high food prices.
It cost them £ 100,000 Lebanese pounds ($ 66) to prepare a grocery package to feed a family for just over a month.
“But now what can you get with it?” Said Adi. “Maybe a can of oil?”
Putting the same food packaging together now costs more than six times as much.
“This year we added groceries to our cash assistance program,” said Adi.
“You can literally walk into a household and find no groceries in the fridge or pantry.”
Fighting erupted in grocery stores that had not yet closed as anxious customers argued over subsidized edible oil, powdered milk and other foods.
Some stores have rationed food to prevent hoarding, but that hasn’t cleared tensions. In some cases, the security forces had to intervene.
World Food Program spokesman Rasha Abou Dargham also told Al Jazeera that more and more people in Lebanon are no longer able to secure the necessary amount of food.
“At least 22 percent of Lebanese, 50 percent of Syrian refugees and 33 percent of refugees of other nationalities are currently food unsafe,” said Abou Dargham.
“The price of a WFP food basket, the bare minimum for survival, more than doubled in 2020 and will continue to rise in 2021.”
The UN agency helps almost 1.5 million people in Lebanon. That’s about every sixth person.
No solution in sight
A source from the Lebanese Ministry of Economic Affairs told Al Jazeera, on condition of anonymity, that it had done everything it could to respond to the food inflation crisis, including monitoring excessive price increases in supermarkets and suppliers hoarding goods.
“We are monitoring on the ground and the department’s consumer protection directorate mobilizes daily,” the source said. “But we don’t have enough inspectors to maximize our effectiveness.”
The source added that the ministry had tried to urge the government to implement antitrust laws – to prevent monopolies and encourage a more diverse market – but to no avail.
The Lebanese government is currently acting as caretaker after Prime Minister Hassan Diab resigned last August.
President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri are at odds and no new government is emerging.
Economy Minister Raoul Nehme introduced subsidies for a variety of staple foods in May 2020. However, this could soon come to an end as Lebanon also prepares to lift subsidies on fuel, flour and medicines.
“Food subsidies were never the solution,” the Ministry of Commerce source told Al Jazeera.
“We need a holistic plan to solve the subsidy problem as a whole, and the minister has advocated it.”
Overcoming Lebanon’s devastating economic crisis will be no mean feat, especially in a country ruled by a notoriously corrupt ruling class.
Meanwhile, Adi said organizations like Sawa for Development and Aid are hoping to comfort families with iftar meals that are reminiscent of life before economic devastation.
“Ramadan cuisine is something that the community anticipates,” she said, “and it enlivens the Ramadan spirit, which is essential for the community’s well-being, solidarity and connection with our culture and the roots of our homeland . “