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Coping with the cost of living

Presenting “alarming new statistics” about the “cost of living crisis,” the latest Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Food Security and Livelihoods Survey Report estimates that 4.1 million people out of 7.1 million (57%) in the English-speaking Caribbean are food insecure.

“This is a dramatic increase of 1.3 million since February 2022,” as stated in the forward to the Regional Summary Report for August 2022, the fifth in a series of surveys focussing on the “Impacts of COVID-19 and the Cost of Living Crisis, which notes that the 4.1 million is the highest since April 2020.

Officially launched via Zoom on Wednesday from Caracas, the survey is a collaborative initiative among CARICOM, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations, the World Food Programme (WFP), the Caribbean Disaster Management Agency, the European Union and USAID Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance.

The fifth report analyses data collected via social media, media outlets and SMS between July 19 and Aug 12, 2022 and compares findings with previous surveys conducted in April 2020, June 2020, February 2021 and February 2022. The snapshot provided by this fifth survey shows that the impacts on people’s lives are “significantly worsening.”

“According to WFP estimates, that there are now 4.1 million people who are moderately or severely food insecure in the English and Dutch-speaking Caribbean, an astronomical 57% of the population. This is a significant shift from the past three rounds of surveys which showed a relatively stable level of food insecurity, albeit with increasing levels of severe food insecurity. These figures have more than doubled since the start of the pandemic. The food insecure population has increased by 1.4 million, equating to a 48% increase over the past six months alone,” the report notes.

How people are coping with food insecurity ranges from skipping meals and digging into savings to foregoing health care and educational services. What people choose to purchase at the grocery store or local market has also shifted.

“Food consumption and diets have deteriorated, with 72% of respondents skipping meals/eating less, eating less preferred foods, or going an entire day without eating in the week leading up to the survey,” the report states, with more respondents than ever (97%) reporting higher than usual food prices; and significant changes in the costs of gas (64%), other fuels (52%), transport (42%) and housing (40%).

Moreover, nearly one third of those surveyed reported having no food at home; more than half faced job loss or reduced income, with those most impacted among the lowest income levels (73%), those relying on informal labour (70%), those working in construction (67%) or agriculture (64%), Spanish speakers (76%) and younger respondents (63% for respondents younger than 26 years).

As to how CARICOM states can address the cost of living crisis, the report recommends strengthening social protection and expanding coverage through temporary and long term programmes; strengthening food systems and expanding initiatives to boost local and regional food production, transformation and consumption; investing in data for better social protection programmes;  building and strengthening price and market monitoring systems to inform policy interventions; and enhancing regional coordination mechanisms for emergency preparedness and response and shock proof delivery of assistance.

The FAO Food Price Index shows that global food prices have increased sharply since the onset of the war in Ukraine. Grain shortages, higher fuel costs and supply chain limitations have all affected food prices, which, in turn, have negatively impacted access to food in the Caribbean.

“On average, food inflation in the English and Dutch speaking Caribbean has risen by 10.2% across 20 countries as of March 2022. Food price increases are particularly alarming in Suriname (68.3%), Barbados (19.6%), Jamaica (14.8%) and Guyana (13.4%), where essential purchases became unaffordable for many. As outlined in the latest World Bank Food Security Update (August 2022), Suriname also appeared among the top ten countries most affected by food inflation globally. Similarly, crude oil prices have steadily increased since 2020, surpassing levels of previous years. By driving up local inflation, spiralling costs of imported energy reduce purchasing power and poorer household’s access to food,” the report notes.

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