Women living with uncertainty and high food prices

By Caterina Monti
Ana Elizabeth Barrera has lost 40% of her clientele in the last three months because of rising food prices. Edgar Orellana/Oxfam America

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Although they are from different generations and live in different parts of the country, Toñita, Ana Elizabeth and Iris have a lot in common: they are women, the are Salvadoran, and their work helps their households stay afloat. It has always been a challenge to earn money to buy food for their children, and with the constant rise in the price of staples over the past year, the impact on all of them is the same: in order to eat, they must forgo other purchases, while not getting the same amount or quality of food as they did only a year ago.

The difficult reality

The macroeconomics of the rising price of staples are complex, but its effect on the lives of three women interviewed by Oxfam America is simple: they feel it every day.

For María Antonia León, or “Toñita”, life has never been easy. She remembers a time when she earned $3 to $4 a day selling tamales, pastries and snacks from her food cart and was able to buy weekly staples to feed her family of five. With this income, she could get six pounds of beans, half a pound of cheese, half a pound of cream, four pounds of rice, eggs, a chicken, and other basics.

“Before, with $20, I was able to fill a shopping cart. Now I can’t… I spend $40 and it’s not enough. I can’t even fill a shopping basket because everything is so expensive. Beans are $2.50, and cooking oil for 15 days is $2. We just can’t manage. This current crisis is really tough,” says Toñita. She doesn’t know how she will find the money to buy shoes or clothes.

Alternatives that help

But Toñita has now found a way to provide her family with nourishing food: Inspired by Saving for Change, she has started a garden and is raising chickens for their eggs. Saving for Change is an Oxfam program that encourages women to use the capital generated through their savings groups to participate in projects that help them achieve a sustainable livelihood. One such project seeks to promote women’s production capacity, entrepreneurial, and self-reliance skills by helping them establish vegetable gardens.

With her garden, Toñita has a new means to feed her family and avoid paying the high prices at the market. The cucumbers, radishes, tomatoes, peppers, cabbage, and mustard greens she is growing are providing her family with the vitamins and proteins they weren’t getting before. And now she is teaching other women in her community how to do the same thing. The best part is she sells her extra produce at below market prices to her neighbors facing similar difficulties.

Health and other things pushed aside

Ana Elizabeth Barrera works at a market in the city of Santa Tecla. She cooks and sells prepared foods, and therefore intimately knows the issue of rising food prices. Ana Elizabeth has seen the price of staples climb steadily over the past five years, but notes an accelerated rise of 60 to 70 percent in the past year, most notably with oil, rice, beans and sugar.

“Six to eight months ago I would invest $100 for oil, rice and other basics, and today I am spending between $150-160 which buys the same amount. Consequently, I have to raise my prices, which means that sales have gone down,” says Ana Elizabeth. She has lost 40 percent of her clientele and has had to let go one of her two employees.

Iris Madrid finds herself in a vulnerable position after losing her job a few weeks ago. Although her income was modest, it was stable and allowed her to buy basic items for her home and support her three children. Now, without a salary and facing rising food costs, she depends on her mother who sells beauty products via catalog.

“If there is detergent, then there is no soap. Or if we have soap, then we have no detergent. If we have beans, then we won’t be eating cheese. If we have cheese, we won’t be eating beans… It hurts because when you have children and they ask you for something, you can’t give it to them,” explains Iris. There are days when all they eat are the mangos from the tree outside her house.

Saving for Change is a program that is growing every day. Since its launch in 2005, it has grown to more than 488,000 members in five countries. The hope is that it will continue to grow and reach people like Ana Elizabeth and Iris, like it has reached Toñita.