Beirut, Lebanon – For the past decade, Sawa For Development and Aid has been delivering evening iftar meals for about 4,000 families breaking the daily fast during Ramadan in Lebanon’s eastern Bekaa Valley.
But this year the NGO’s busy kitchen has had to work non-stop, cooking for at least 7,000 Syrian refugee and Lebanese families.
“This year is a bit different,” Doha Adi, the NGO’s programmes manager, told Al Jazeera with a sigh.
“We’re providing hot meals for areas far from our kitchen [in the Bekaa Valley], delivering food parcels to homes in Beirut and Tripoli – we never thought we’d ever have to intervene in Beirut,” she said.
But it is not only Syrian refugees and vulnerable Lebanese across the country asking Sawa for Development and Aid for meals this Ramadan.
“We’re being contacted by municipalities in the Bekaa Governorate to support Lebanese households this year,” Adi said.
“They’re sending us lists of vulnerable households, asking if we can support them.”
The Lebanese pound has lost about 90 percent of its value since late 2019 and continues to slump.
Over the past 18 months, more than half of Lebanon’s population has fallen into poverty.
On top of that, food prices have skyrocketed – even for the most modest household staples.
Lebanon imports most of its goods, including food, and food inflation in Lebanon is the highest in the world, according to the United Nations – as food prices have soared above 400 percent.
‘What can you get with that?’
Calculations by Nasser Yassin, professor of policy and planning at the American University of Beirut, have revealed that a common fattoush salad – comprised of basic ingredients like lettuce, tomatoes, radish and parsley – is 210 percent more expensive to prepare this year.
Yassin has dismissed tabloid speculation that Lebanon could witness a famine, but is still alarmed by the country’s food security crisis and said Lebanese households are likely to shift to a less nutritious and diverse diet, as many of the country’s 1.5 million Syrian refugees have been forced to do.
“Instead of eating three times [a day], they would eat twice, but mostly they would go for cheaper options, so more carbs, less meat and proteins,” Yassin said.
Sawa for Development and Aid has so far secured more than $12,000 in donations for its Ramadan meal services this year, but the charity has felt the effects of steep food prices.
Preparing a food parcel to feed a family for just over a month used to cost them 100,000 Lebanese pounds ($66).
“But now, what can you get with that?” Adi said. “One can of oil, maybe?”
Assembling that same food package now costs more than six times as much.
“This year, we added food supplies to our cash assistance programme,” Adi said.
“You literally can go into a household and find no food in the fridge or in the pantries.”
Grocery shops that have yet to close down have seen scuffles breaking out, as anxious customers quarrel over subsidised cooking oil, powdered milk and other food items.
Some stores have rationed food items to stop people from hoarding, but that has not quelled tensions. In some cases, the security forces have had to intervene.
World Food Programme spokesperson Rasha Abou Dargham also told Al Jazeera that an increasing number of people in Lebanon can no longer secure the necessary amount of food.
“At least 22 percent of Lebanese, 50 percent of Syrian refugees, and 33 percent of refugees of other nationalities are currently food insecure,” Abou Dargham said.
“The price of a WFP food basket, the bare minimum to survive, more than doubled in 2020 and continues to rise in 2021.”
The UN agency is helping almost 1.5 million people in Lebanon. That is about one in every six people.
No solution in sight
A source from the Lebanese economy ministry, speaking under condition of anonymity, told Al Jazeera that it has done all it can to respond to the food inflation crisis, including monitoring excessive price hikes at supermarkets and suppliers hoarding goods.
“We’re monitoring on the ground, with the ministry’s Consumer Protection Directorate mobilising daily,” the source said. “But we don’t have enough inspectors to maximise our effectiveness.”
The source added that the ministry has tried to push the government to implement antitrust laws – to prevent monopolies and promote a more diverse market – but to no avail.
Lebanon’s government currently operates in a caretaker capacity, after Prime Minister Hassan Diab resigned last August.
President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri remain at odds, with no new government formation on the horizon.
Economy Minister Raoul Nehme introduced subsidies on a wide array of basic food items in May 2020. But that may soon come to an end, as Lebanon also prepares to lift subsidies on fuel, flour and medicines.
“Food subsidies were never the solution,” the economy ministry source told Al Jazeera.
“We need a holistic plan to sort out the subsidies issue as a whole, and the minister has been lobbying for this.”
Overcoming Lebanon’s devastating economic crisis will be no small feat, especially in a country ruled by a notoriously corrupt ruling class.
But in the meantime, Adi said organisations like Sawa for Development and Aid hope to comfort families with iftar meals reminiscent of life before economic devastation.
“The Ramadan Kitchen is something the community anticipates,” she said, “and it revives the Ramadan spirit that is essential for the wellbeing of the community, for solidarity, for staying connected to our culture and roots of our home country.”