Special: Hunger in El SalvadorSpecial: Hunger in El Salvador
Nearly One Million Salvadorans on the Verge of StarvationNearly One Million Salvadorans on the Verge of Starvation
Almost a sixth of the Salvadoran population cannot afford to buy meat, eggs, or dairy products. For the country’s poorest families, even rice is not an option. Corn and beans are the daily fare for those who can grow them. In the past three years, 210,456 people have fallen into extreme poverty, meaning they do not make enough to cover the costs of basic staples, and rarely, if ever, eat three meals a day. Some 907,000 Salvadorans suffer severe food insecurity, struggling to survive on the brink of starvation.
“We always skip a meal,” says Cecilia Ábrego bluntly, describing the sacrifices her family has made because of the rising costs of basic staples. She’s not alone. In El Salvador, nearly half of the population suffers moderate to severe food insecurity, meaning they do not eat enough, can go days without eating anything, and do not know whether they will have food in the immediate future. As of May 2022, 14 percent of Salvadorans faced severe or emergency levels of food insecurity, with international organizations warning that, by the end of 2022, roughly 907,000 people were were on the verge of famine. The crisis has been driven mainly by inflation, which, according to the International Monetary Fund, that year reached 7.2 percent. In November 2023, year-over-year food price inflation in particular reached 4.7 percent.
Rising food costs, crop failures due to the climate crisis, and a lack of agricultural subsidies have increased the numbers of people who are forced to skip meals. In years past, the situation has often worsened with the aggravation of any of these factors. But now there is a new obstacle: the state of exception, which has resulted in the mass imprisonment of more than 73,800 people, or roughly 1.2 percent of the country’s population. This has left thousands of Salvadoran families with less income, either because a family breadwinner was detained, or because the household must now divide what little they earn between usual expenses and the prison packages they now purchase to provide basic necessities to their incarcerated family members. Reports from human rights organizations and numerous journalistic investigations have confirmed that a large swath of the people detained under the state of exception were arrested without evidence of gang ties, or of having committed any crime.
To understand how Salvadoran families survive under these uncertain conditions, what they eat, and how increased food insecurity has impacted their household economy, El Faro visited communities in the capital city of San Salvador; in Tacuba, Ahuachapán; in Berlín, Usulután; and in San Simón, Morazán. Several of these communities are classified as extremely poor by the World Food Program (WFP) and El Salvador’s Social Investment Fund for Local Development (FISDL). The families who spoke with El Faro reflect the lived reality of this rise in the cost of living: what little money they earn is used for basic subsistence, and their pantries contain, at most, three products from the basic food basket. These families don’t even think about buying medicine, because they have no money. When they get sick, they turn to the nearest government health unit, if there is one. With the reduction in the government’s primary health care budget by 12.61 percent between 2021 and 2022, lack of access to medical care is a major problem in the country, where 39.5 percent of the population depends on state-run health units when they get sick.
Official data from midway through last year showed that there are roughly 1.9 million people living in poverty in El Salvador: 1,289,405 in relative poverty and 578,801 in extreme poverty. The relatively poor are those families that can cover twice the cost of a basic food basket; the extremely poor are those that cannot afford even one. “The effects are serious,” says Adela Bonilla, who works with the Food Sovereignty Roundtable and the St. Thomas Women’s Movement Association, or Momujest, for its acronym in Spanish. “The amount of food has decreased for some families, and in [some areas in] the western and eastern parts of the country, it’s a fact that families skip meals: they have a late breakfast, for example, so that they can eat a late lunch [and skip dinner].”
The rapid increase in El Salvador’s cost of living is reflected in the rising price of the basic food basket: At the end of 2022, families in urban areas paid up to $240.36 USD a month for food to cover the basic caloric needs of a four-member household, or 13 percent more than they paid in 2021, when the cost was $211.81. The monthly minimum wage varies by industry, from $150 for domestic workers to $240 (for agriculture) or $365 (for “commerce and services”). Some families earn even less.
The same trend has affected rural areas, where the price of the basket increased from $151.88 in 2021 to $181.54 at the end of 2022 (a 19 percent rise). When compared to the price from ten years ago, the overall increase is considerable: Since 2013, the cost of the basket has risen 38 percent in urban areas and 47.3 in rural areas. This has forced 70.7 percent of the country’s population to make cuts to their family budget, according to a survey conducted by Francisco Gavidia University (UFG). In addition to this lack of access, Bonillo emphasizes that El Salvador’s basic food basket is already a diminished benchmark: “We have the most inadequate food basket in Central America. The nutrition content is much less than in Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala.” According to the Food Sovereignty Roundtable, the 22 products that make up the urban basket and the 16 that make up the rural basket are neither the most optimal foods, from a nutrition standpoint, nor do they contain the necessary amount of calories the body needs to stay healthy.
Families living in extreme poverty resort to harvesting seasonal vegetables and fruits to complement a diet of tortillas and beans; others have increased their consumption of pasta, which they season with chicken-flavored bouillon, or achiote, an annatto-based seasoning and coloring blend, to make the food less tasteless.
For the women members of the Cuisnahuat Domestic Workers’ Union in Sonsonate, precarity is a shared experience: “Many mothers are worried about what they’ll feed their children. The minimum wage ($150 a month) is not enough. Some can’t even afford to send their kids to school,” says Rosa Elías, Secretary General of the union, which represents 60 workers. She says this uncertainty has only deepened under the state of exception: Many women now support family members in prison, and have never received an agricultural package from the Ministry of Agriculture. Elías says that one in two of the women in her union will not be able to plant crops this season. Bonilla confirms that there have been delays in the delivery of the government’s agricultural relief program, and an overall reduction in the number of people benefiting from the program, which distributes seeds for planting. “The state’s performance in this area has been a mess,” he says. “They talk about a master plan, but we have no idea what it’s based on.”
On June 1, in a speech commemorating his four years in office, President Nayib Bukele opened with an emphasis on security. “People are thinking about where to go on the weekend. They’re not afraid anymore,” he said during the first minutes of the speech, followed by three more pronouncements about security. He did not mention combating hunger. In September 2020, Bukele made a rare public acknowledgement regarding the importance of supporting agriculture, speaking briefly about the “ruralization of the country.” In practice, Bonilla says, agriculture has not been on the government’s agenda: “It’s clear that agriculture is not a priority. There are fewer and fewer farmers.”
According to the EHPM, a government survey of households, in 2019 —Bukele’s first year in office— there were 87,234 households in extreme poverty. By 2022, that figure had nearly doubled, to 170,369.
On June 8, 2023, Finance Minister Alejando Zelaya celebrated El Salvador’s general inflation dropping to 4.41 percent year-over-year in May, a return to levels not seen since August 2021. “Now what will the opposition say about President @nayibbukele’s anti-inflation measures?” he tweeted. Economist José Luis Magaña, who has also participated in the Food Sovereignty Roundtable, responded to the minister in another tweet: “General inflation has reached 4.41%. But food price inflation has reached 8.35%” — four times more than the rate for August 2021 (2.11 percent). By November 2023, year-over-year general inflation reached 2.21 percent and food price inflation 4.7 %. As Magaña explains, “lower inflation does not mean that prices are going down, only that prices are rising at a slower rate.” Magaña’s statement is corroborated by data: a survey conducted by the think tank Fundaungo found that nearly seven out of ten Salvadorans consider the economy to be the main problem they face at home.
For Bonilla, the fact that the high cost of food has not prompted an “adequate public policy” response does not bode well for the near future: “We could start to see violence over food and water,” he says, referring to the possibility of increased crop theft, robberies, and assaults.