By Rana F. Sweis
(Edited version published in JO magazine)
On a warm summer morning in East Amman, a private school is turned into a makeshift food distribution centre. Brown boxes are placed on top of each other on long rectangular tables. Masoud, who fled Iraq in 2006, stood in line with dozens of other Iraqis living in Jordan. He gazes far off into the distance as others empty their boxes full of wheat, rice, sugar, milk powder and other food items, then placing them in large white plastic bags. Sabri, a short, gray haired, elderly man shakes his head in disbelief. “It’s my first time ever that I have been forced to resort to food aid,” he explains. “The price of food in Amman is becoming so expensive and many Iraqis living in East Amman and outside Amman are developing health problems because they don’t have money to buy fruits and vegetables as well as meat.”
In a middle class neighborhood in Amman, Amer Swenda, a Jordanian taxi driver, is looking for a more stable monthly salary. He can no longer pay 30 Dinars of petrol per day. “My children need milk, and every few days I go to buy milk and I find the price has been changed dramatically,” he explains. “Today I can buy milk and rice but what about tomorrow?”
Meat and chicken prices in Jordan have risen 30 percent in less than a year. The price of eggs and milk nearly doubled. Fruits and vegetables have tripled. Jordan seems to be heading towards progress in terms of infrastructure development and privatization but the increase in food prices, leading to additional cases of malnutrition in the kingdom, may pose many challenges ahead. It is not a Jordanian phenomenon alone. On July 3, 2008, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) announced the number of hungry people increased by about 50 million in 2007 as a direct result of high food prices.
The World Bank estimates 33 countries face social unrest because of the rise in food and energy prices. The largest problems of malnutrition are in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. In Jordan, a recent published survey by the Jordan Population and Family Heath (JPFHS) reveals a rise in malnutrition among Jordanian children. “Malnutrition is a consequence and eventuality,” explains Mohammad Ismail, Senior Program and Logistics Assistant at the World Food Program (WFP) in Amman. “Obviously that means there is a change in the household food consumption behavior including in quality and quantity of food.” Meanwhile, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) provides food packages to some 20,000 Iraqis a month in Jordan, but the refugee agency was forced to cut the size of the package due to the rising prices. In effect, it has decreased the nutritional value, which contained 1,300 calories per person per day to 1100 kilocalories per day. “In some meetings that I attended, vulnerable Iraqis were wrapping pastries and sandwiches for their families and taking coffee sachets because they can’t afford it anymore and they don’t have an income,” explains Jason Erb, Save the Children, Deputy Country Director for Emergency Programs in Amman. “They are ashamed about taking the food home for their families and they did not do that in the past as much but I see it’s increasing,” he says. In addition, twenty five percent of UNHCR beneficiaries are vulnerable Jordanians. “Being that it is a supplementary package, they cannot depend on what we distribute as the main source of food,” says Dana Bajjali, UNHCR Mass Information Assistant.
Mounira Mohammad, works at a Salon in Amman. She recently asked a truck driver traveling from Saudi Arabia to Jordan to bring her children powdered milk. “The milk is cheaper there and we are lucky that we are able to buy it from the trucker at a cheaper price,” she says. On her day off, Mounira usually visits her neighbors who told her recently they stopped buying milk altogether. “One day I visited my neighbor and she was giving her two-year old a cup of tea instead of milk because it’s cheaper,” she explains. “The children no longer know what milk tastes like.” According to a survey conducted in 2004 by the Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation then published in the local newspapers last year, the number of poverty pockets in Jordan increased to 42 areas, while in 2004, only 20 areas were categorized officially as poverty pockets. One of the highlights recorded in the survey suggests families in poverty do not use different types of nutrients, but rather consume more quantities of tea and bread for long periods and use these items as main sources of food. As a result, this causes imbalances in the nutrient values and calorie intake. However, learning how to use different types of food despite the limited income may increase the value of nutrition. “We don’t really need to have meat, chicken or fish everyday to get optimum nutrition,” explains Amal Nasser, a Diet, Nutrition Consultant and Founder of ANANA Wellness centre in Amman. “We need to educate people through campaigns and give them simple, straight forward messages on how to combine the different foods.” With certain combinations and on a fixed budget various sectors in society would able to educate people how to prepare certain foods, to ensure their family receives the maximum benefits, nutrients and calories they need, says Nasser. “It’s not about having a kilogram of meat everyday that you end up being healthy.”
Like in many natural and man-made disasters, it is usually children who are hit the hardest. Worldwide, malnutrition plays a role in the death of 6 million children a year—which equals the entire population of Jordan. Due to the rise in food prices and drought, more than 4 million people in Ethiopia are in need of emergency food assistance and widespread famine may be imminent, reported Concerned Worldwide, an international humanitarian relief and development organization. In Iraq more then a quarter of the country’s children are malnourished. At least 4 million Iraqis depend on food assistance, according to an Oxfam report. “When we used to live in Iraq before the war, we never worried about food or water because the government provided it free of charge but now Iraqis living there are starving,” says Sabri Ilia who owned a factory in Iraq but is now unemployed and living with his married children in Amman
The 2007 JPFHS survey measured malnutrition according to international standards–children’s height for age and weight for age. The survey indicates that malnutrition among children under the age of five rose by 2-6 percent from 2002. However, there are conflicting reports. According to JPFHS survey, 12 per cent of children were classified as stunted in 2007 (as opposed to 14 per cent according to the WHO Child Growth standards), compared with nine percent in 2002. A joint WFP and JAAH survey is being conducted regarding malnutrition in poverty pockets already identified by the government to assess the threat of food security due to the rise in food prices. “Once the survey comes out, we will be able to assess accurately the extent and severity of malnutrition due to the rise in food prices in poverty pockets households,” says Ismail.
Moreover, the JPFHS survey indicates factors such as the quality of mother-child care and infancy feeding patterns also play an important role. Patterns of breastfeeding have changed in the past five years and responsible to a certain extent to the deterioration in children’s nutritional status. WFP reports exemplify how malnutrition in early childhood undermines children’s physical and cognitive abilities, therefore hindering their performance in school. If girls are malnourished they give birth to underweight babies, and the cycle continues into the next generation. The report also listed the five most critical threats to the lives of children under age five in developing countries: newborn disorders, malnutrition, pneumonia, diarrhea and measles. Effective measures to fight these killers is not expensive. Yet millions of children still die each year because they are not being reached. “We don’t want poor Jordanians to get to a point where they become dependent on food aid, but we want to continue with the notion of food-for-work’, explains Sawsan Al Fayez of JAAH. “Food-for-work means, we give needy family food packages but at the same time, we give them an income generating project until we assess and know that they have become independent.” However, Al Fayez says she worries that cases of malnutrition are increasing. “In my line of work, I see there is an increase in both malnutrition and even hunger in Jordan that is not being recorded,” she adds.
Meanwhile, Swenda, the Jordanian taxi driver, continues to worry about his children’s future. “Sometimes I drive around and see poor children inside the big rubbish bins and think my family is lucky but then I wonder about the future of our people.”
Risks to Food Security in Jordan
Lack of job opportunities and low income
Decline in economic indicators
Low and erratic annual precipitation
Agricultural land degradation
Self insufficiency in food products, especially cereals
Water scarcity, with Jordan ranking among the 10 most water-deficit countries
Food Production: Cereals, vegetables, fruit, poultry and eggs. Dependent on imports for a substantial part of the food supply.