In April of 2008, 11 people in Egypt starved to death while waiting in line at a local market for bread. “Aysh,” the Arabic word for bread, is so essential in Egyptian culture it also translates to mean life.
Bread has always been a staple product for the poor. With 14.2 million people living below the poverty line, the popular baladi bread is one of the few items those living in poverty can afford. But rising food prices has put even baladi out of reach for many.
To assist in this vital hunger issue, The United Nations’s World Food Program (WFP) has partnered with the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) and the Egyptian government in an effort to distribute and bake healthier bread.
The UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) reported in 2010 that world food prices hit record highs, increasing roughly 25 percent since 2009. These prices are expected to escalate further as rising oil prices increase the cost of producing, storing, and transporting food.
GAIN awarded 3 million dollars to WFP, to assist the Egyptian government in subsidizing wheat flour, and lowering the cost of baladi bread for those living in poverty. Baladi is full of calories and carbohydrates, but still lacks important nutrients a healthy body needs. One in every two Egyptian children under five has anemia, which occurs when there is a noticeable decrease in red blood cells, and the body is unable to produce more. In pregnant women, anemia can cause serious birth defects.
To fight childhood anemia, WFP is supplementing baladi with nutrients such as iron and folic acid. This bread is distributed to schools and served to students during lunch. This distribution program also accommodates government subsidies; families living on less than a dollar a day can afford to buy baladi in local markets, giving families the supplements they need.
Since the program was implemented in 2008, WFP has fed over 50 million Egyptians, roughly 70 percent of the population. This effort has had powerful economic effects. For every 17 cents spent to subsidize flour, an estimated $4 dollars is returned to the economy, allowing small businesses to hire more people.
Though most of WFP’s programs were implemented on a monthly basis, the recent protests have made it difficult to continue some of these vital distributions. Rene McGuffin, Senior Spokesperson for WFP, told MediaGlobal “The one program that has been affected to date is the school feeding program.” McGuffin explained that because the protests have forced schools to close they have not been able to deliver the bread, but McGuffin said the programs are well funded and will be able to resume when the protests end.
But as the civil disruptions continue, people have had to wait over five hours in line to buy bread, the cost of which has shot up over 80 percent. The overall economy is so stagnant people have not gone to work and salaries have not been paid.
The people being hurt the most are those WFP is trying to help. “Egypt is a low income food country and so the margin between access to proficient nutritious food and hunger is pretty thin,” McGuffin said. “Of course the longer the social unrest continues in Egypt there is of course potential greater impact on the economy which of course will result in a greater impact on families.”
On Friday, the UN evacuated most of their staff in Egypt, but 12 essential staff members are staying behind to carry out WFP’s mission. Abeer Etefa, Senior Regional Public Information Officer in Egypt, told MediaGlobal that bread is still being subsidized through Egypt’s Ministry of Social Solidarity, and the WFP staff staying in Egypt will continue working to expand the social safety nets for the most vulnerable Egyptians.
There is no doubt that access to food has been a contributing factor in the complex events that have recently unfolded. People continue to be hungry, and whoever is in charge after the crisis will need to figure out effective ways to get nutritious food to those in need.