Pandemic heightens need for food security in the Caribbean

By Kate Chappell (IPS)

Jaxine Scott displays vegetables in her garden at her home in Kingston, Jamaica. Credit: Kate Chappell

HAVANA TIME – Last year, Jaxine Scott was off work as a primary school nurse’s aide due to the pandemic. One day, she noticed a green sprout emerging from the garlic in her refrigerator. She decided to plant it, and to her surprise, it thrived. “I was like ‘Looks like I have a green thumb, let me plant something else,’” said Scott. She now has a back garden, including cucumber, pumpkin, melon, callaloo, cantaloupe, pak choy, and tomatoes. “It makes me feel good,” she said. “I can help my family members and my neighbors. It saved me money. I’m not going to stop, I’m going to continue, ”she said.

Scott, 45, is just one of thousands of Jamaicans who have taken an interest in gardening, both as a way to pass the time and to become more self-reliant when it comes to food and nutrition.

This is a small but important step for a country and region where trees are laden with an abundance of fruit, but where many people go hungry every day.

An October 2020 study of eight Caribbean countries found that 40% of those polled suffered from some form of hunger, with 42% saying it was moderate to severe. The survey conducted by the College of Health Sciences at the University of Technology covered 2,257 households in eight countries in the region (Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, Belize, Barbados, Saint Kitts and -Nevis, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and Antigua and Barbuda.) Another recent study by the Caribbean Research and Policy Institute and Unicef ​​also found that in a survey of 500 Jamaican households, 44% said they were experiencing food shortages, while 78% said their savings could last them four weeks or less.

Food security is a technical term referring to the availability of nutritious food and defined by the United Nations as having “physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their food preferences and needs. food for an active and healthy life. . “The World Bank reports that despite the pandemic, the supply is sufficient, but the challenge lies at the national level. Food security risks include higher prices and reduced incomes, forcing households to depend more small portions of less nutritious foods.

“We suspected that people were reducing their intake, especially households where breadwinners were losing their jobs. This has greatly upset some households. People are cutting back on the number of meals they ate, ”says Dr. Vanessa White Barrow, director of the School of Allied Health and Wellness at the College of Health Sciences at the University of Technology.

The effect of this, of course, has many repercussions, including malnutrition, lack of energy, obesity due to the consumption of cheaper but unhealthy foods and a variety of health problems like diabetes. and hypertension.

“What has happened is that the nutritional gap has widened because of COVID,” says Professor T. Alafia Samuels, of the Caribbean Health Research Institute at the University of the West Indies.

“We also know that before, due to the reliance of many households on processed foods, people cut back (healthy foods) and opt for cheaper alternatives, which has long-term health implications,” she says. This particularly affects children, who need nutritious food to grow and learn properly. In addition, children are confined to their homes, learning online and missing the physical activity they would have had in school.

Food and nutrition insecurity is just one frightening result of the pandemic, which has ravaged one of the most tourism dependent regions in the world. In Jamaica alone, a minimum of 50,000 people have been made redundant from the tourism industry, a number which is likely even higher if indirect employment is taken into account. It is estimated that 135,000 people have lost their jobs in total. The country’s real GDP for fiscal year 2020/21 is expected to contract as much as 12%, according to the Bank of Jamaica, and the unemployment rate for October 2020 was 10.7%. According to the World Bank, the percentage of people living below the poverty line was 19.3% in 2017, and even if that figure has improved, it is unlikely to continue this trajectory.

In view of this ordeal, the government has put in place a series of financial stimulus measures to reach the most vulnerable, but these are not sustainable. In addition to financial measures, the government has also focused on increasing food security, an effort that existed before the pandemic, but has since intensified.

In terms of boosting food security and helping the agricultural industry, Jamaican Agriculture and Fisheries Minister Floyd Green said the government is investing JMD $ 1 billion this year.

Falling market demand, largely from the hotel and restaurant industry, has hurt the agricultural industry. So while the supply is sometimes in excess, the lack of demand has impacted farmers and their production systems, which in turn erodes food security.

“The challenge with COVID is clearly the market downturn, which is discouraging farmers from producing,” Green said, adding that they feared their supply would be eaten up. With this in mind, the government created a “buy-back” program, which found new customers for the farmers, which helped.

“We saw an initial drop in production with COVID when it entered, but we have returned to a growth position overall, and now year over year we are seeing growth. “

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Michael M. Tomlin

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