It starts in the stomach. When we have had nothing to eat, this organ, which stores and processes food, pushes into the small intestine the food particles that had not been fully digested before, so that the body can absorb their nutrients.
The intestines fill with air and make a noise known as borborygmus. We feel our stomach growl like a raging beast.
In the meantime, the body is producing the hormone ghrelin, which sends signals to the hypothalamus, there where appetite is regulated, to remind us that it is time to eat. We feel fatigued because our levels of glucose, the type of sugar in food that is transformed into energy, plummet. The pancreas, in an effort to compensate for the imbalance, secretes glucagon.
We sweat profusely, we get dizzy, our head hurts, our vision gets blurry, and we feel we are about to faint.
At that point, if we don’t eat, the body will tap into its reserves of glycogen, a type of glucose that is stored in the liver for energy in the absence of food. But it is a short-lived remedy. After six hours, the body will break down fat in its fat cells. And, after 72 hours, having ran out of glycogen and fat, it will dip into protein stores.
Well, that’s when problems begin.
Hunger is the body complaining, eating itself, taking what it needs to continue functioning from wherever it can get it. It is the «desire and need to eat», as defined by the Dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy. But hunger is also what people experience when they are starving and have no food to eat. In the latter sense, hunger is the «shortage of basic foodstuffs, causing famine and widespread misery.»
Food shortages, famine, widespread misery, are terms that have resounded all across Venezuela for the past five years. Although in 2015 the National Institute of Nutrition stopped publishing the Food Balance Sheet, which provides a measure of the country’s food availability and its expression in terms of energy and nutrients for the previous year, reports from local and foreign organizations reveal that Venezuela is undergoing a major crisis: its people do not have regular access to sufficient food to meet their needs and preferences. That is what we know as food insecurity.
The National Food Security Survey, which was conducted in all of the country’s states from July to September of 2019 by the United Nations’ World Food Program, estimated that 9 million 300 thousand Venezuelans experience moderate to severe levels of food insecurity, and that one in three people (32.2 percent of the population) needs food assistance
«If the amount of food energy in the country were divided by the international standard of 2,100 calories, only 20 million or 21 million people would be able to eat at that ideal level. Which means that some 9 million would be left out, because there would not be enough food for all,» explained nutritionist Susana Raffalli, an expert in food security.
The WFP survey placed the country in an undesirable list. According to the 2020 Global Report on Food Crisis, Venezuela appeared as the world’s fourth largest food crisis, only behind Yemen, Congo, and Afghanistan, and followed by Ethiopia, South Sudan, and Syria. «Levels of acute food insecurity increased as Venezuelans who remained in the country felt the impact of hyperinflation and were unable to meet their essential needs,» the document says.
This critical scenario was further compounded by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. As claimed by Mrs. Raffalli, there were about 12 million food insecure Venezuelans in November 2020. Furthermore, as per the Regional Overview of Food and Nutrition Security in Latin America and the Caribbean 2020, «it seems clear that countries such as El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, that already had high levels of food insecurity and poverty before the pandemic, can be predicted to be at greater risk of worsening their situation in the coming months.»
Never in its contemporary history has Venezuela gone through such a food chaos, notes Ocarina Castillo, an anthropologist with a PhD in social sciences and a researcher of Venezuelan food. That was not always the case. For decades, abundant oil revenues made Venezuela a place where cupboards were full, since the country produced and was able to import what it required to meet the needs of its population.
At present, the empty or near-empty tables are a reflection of the protracted deterioration of the country’s economy and, consequently, of the country’s food supply chain. The road of food to the people’s tables is packed with potholes that grow deeper by the minute. Expropriated and unproductive fields, shortage of agricultural inputs and fuel, unsafe roads, industries closed or operating at a minimum capacity, lousy public services, shortage of household and cooking gas, use of food as a tool for political and social control… «Behind everything we eat, how we eat it, how it is served, where we eat it, in what context we eat it, etc., there is a compendium of our culture, our collective memory, our values, our geography, our symbols, and our social environment. A country’s production stages are a reflect of its food supply chain, from the moment that food is harvested, distributed, and processed, to the moment when it is stocked and reaches the people’s tables,» says Castillo.
And all along that road, which has turned into a daunting uphill climb, there are Venezuelans who try to survive or help others, against all odds. It is
La Vida de Nos toured fifteen of the country’s states and portrayed this reality in seventeen stories published in various formats from October 31 to December 19, 2020. The Hunger Route has several stages:
Gustavo Nouel is an agricultural engineer. A decade ago, he performed as a professor at the Lisandro Alvarado Central Western University, but what he earned was not enough for him to live on. So he quit his job, hoping one day he could return to the classroom to teach his students that the land can be generous. The opportunity presented itself in the plains state of Barinas.
Rolando Sosa inherited the Fundo San Luis from his father. It sits in Calabozo, state of Guárico, right in the Venezuelan plains. He planted grass and corn and raised cattle on 200 hectares. In December of 2008, the property was invaded by people who argued it was idle land and that they were determined to put it to good use.
Through his Twitter account, which has more than 16,600 followers, Alfonso Morales is constantly expressing his passion for working the fields. From Bailadores, the agricultural town in the state of Mérida where he was born and raised, he tells us how he discovered that by cultivating the land he can serve others.
In San Simón, an expanse of open ground located in the state of Bolívar, in southern Venezuela, Gregoria Zapata and Jesús Manuel Umbría grow peppers, beans, and corn. They also had three horses and one mare that they used to work the land and for transportation. But one day, when they woke up in the early morning hours, the animals were missing.
From a very young age, Alcides learned the business of crop farming and sale from his father. Every morning, they would hop on a truck and drive to markets in Caripe, the town in the state of Monagas where they lived, and other towns nearby. They felt that the trade would always bring them prosperity.
Luis, a 29-year-old veterinarian, was running his father’s farm in Chometa, a town in the plains state of Barinas. On August 20, 2020, after selling some cattle in Caracas, he went back home with his friend Jhon. He thought he was in good company.
In 2010, the government of Hugo Chávez expropriated nine sugar mills in the state of Yaracuy, in west-central Venezuela. One of those was Santa Clara, a mill that used to produce a minimum 840 thousand tons of sugar cane per year, but one that collapsed under the State’s administration. Hugo Gilberto Sequera was its Human Resources manager. This is his first-hand experience behind Santa Clara’s doors.
Pedro Pérez started working at Protinal Proagro in 2000, when it was a thriving industry that produced tons of cold meat and chicken products per month. Sometime later, he would bear witness to hunger setting foot in the food company.
For years, the plastic artist Jesús Pernalete has dedicated himself to alleviating the hunger of his students in Barquisimeto, state of Lara, through projects and foundations that have provided them with a hot meal. No longer able to continue pursuing his mission as the crisis in Venezuela escalated, he and his team had to look for other ways to help children overcome malnutrition.
After training as a chef in Caracas, Nelson Méndez returned to Puerto Ayacucho, the capital of the state of Amazonas, in southern Venezuela, where he was born and raised. In 2016, when the economic crisis was already affecting people’s access to food, he set out to create a gastronomic school to promote the flavors of the jungle.
During the oil strike of 2002, José Gregorio Araujo opened a small family-run Italian restaurant in Sabanetas, a mountain village on the outskirts of the city of Trujillo, in the Venezuelan Andes. Eighteen years later, they had to reinvent themselves to stay afloat.
José Enrique García was 13 years old when his father died of AIDS. He dropped out of school to find a job, and helped his mother raise his two younger siblings with what he earned. All three now live on their own in La Baldosera, a dangerous sector of San Felipe, Yaracuy, in northwestern Venezuela.
Miranda and Paúl created an organization in Cumaná, in eastern Venezuela, to offer training activities for community leaders. Three years later, they realized that many people around them were starving and that some of their volunteers had lost between 22 and 33 pounds. So they decided to do something about it.
Fay Ellen Hernandez lost one of her children to malnutrition, and she fears that one of her grandchildren, who is underweight, will share the same fate. Since the bag of food she receives every two months through the Local Supply and Production Committee is just five days’ worth of meals, the rest of the time she goes to great lengths to make sure that no one at home goes to bed without eating.
Hungry children in a classroom. Indigenous families in Delta Amacuro, in the eastern end of Venezuela, who only eat mangoes to make the little food they have stretch. A pandemic that is here to further complicate what was already complicated. Arlys Obdola transformed her business into a program that tries to mitigate the food crisis facing the country.
Marimar lives with her 11-year-old twins and a 10-month-old grandson in Las Bateas de Maurica, a village near Barcelona, the capital of the state of Anzoátegui, in eastern Venezuela. More often than not, she gets up in the morning not knowing for sure if they will have something to eat during the day.
The Superintendence of Institutions of the Banking Sector froze the bank accounts of Alimenta la Solidaridad [Feed Solidarity], an organization that maintains 239 community kitchens in 14 states in the country, there where 25,000 at-risk children are provided with meals on a daily basis. Una sonrisa, Una esperanza [One Smile, One Hope] is one of 40 that operate in Petare, the largest slum in Latin America. It is coordinated by María Angélica, a 31-year-old woman who has always dreamed of being a cook and who, side by side with the community, has endeavored to keep the kitchens running.
Editors-In-Chief: Albor Rodríguez y Héctor Torres
General Coordination and Editing: Erick Lezama y Martha Viaña Pulido
Editorial Coordination: Heberlizeth González
Stories written by: Marian González, Aitxza Pérez, Paula Rangel, Miguel Gamboa, Vanessa Leonett, Ricardo Tarazona, Carolina Azavache, José Carlos Cordero, José Luis Guerra, Rossana Battistelli, Raúl Vejar, Heberlizeth González, Samir Aponte y Génesis Guerrero
Photography: Yovany Ramírez, Aixtza Pérez, Luis Boada, Miguel Gamboa, José Julián Bravo, José Carlos Cordero, Ricardo Tarazona, Laura Purroy y Ronald Peña
Ilustrations: Walther Sorg, Carmen Helena García e Ivanna Balzán
Editing: Reinaldo Cardoza, Nilsa Gulfo y Bianile Rivas
Visual Editing: Iván Ocando
Audiovisual Editing and Voice-Over: Carlos Carrillo
Graphic Design and Composition: Daniel Salazar
Communications: Paola Lessey, Oriana Lozada, Liamir Aristimuño y Heberlizeth González
The Hunger Route is a publishing and training project developed by La Vida de Nos and its network of storytellers within the framework of the La Vida de Nos Itinerante and La Vida de Nos Itinerante Universitaria programs.
Organización dedicada a fomentar la memoria y la identidad, a través del arte de contar historias que ayuden a comprender la Venezuela de hoy.