'With the food bank, we always have something to eat'

scene from a food bank
Food bank members Hamida (left) and Samina Begum measure a kilogram of rice. Elizabeth Stevens/Oxfam

By making rice and fodder more accessible, women in the grip of the climate crisis are keeping hunger at bay.

When you live next door to the Ganges River, floods are a fact of your life. If you add monsoon rains to the picture, weathering floods may take center stage in the life of your family. Enter the climate crisis—the chaos factor that makes those rains hard to predict—and you might be living in rural Bangladesh.

In the village of South Gabindi in the north of the country, water has shaped the lives of the residents just as surely as it has shaped the land they live on. South Gabindi sits on a char—a sandbar nearly surrounded by the river Jamuna. The soil here is fertile and irrigation is natural, so the land around the village center is bright green with rice. But heavy rains combined with snow melt from the Himalayas spell erosion, and the results for the people who live here can be sudden and devastating.

“I lost my home in a flood, so now I have no house or land of my own,” says Samina Begum. She has a sheep, she explains. “My only other asset is the one kilogram of rice I save each month.”

By saving just a fistful of rice at every meal, women in northern Bangladesh are creating food banks that help their families weather disasters. Elizabeth Stevens/Oxfam

We always have something to eat

Saving rice, one handful at a time, has become a lifeline for the villagers of South Gabindi. With the help of the SKS Foundation, an Oxfam partner, they have created a food bank—a means of storing and protecting rice for a rainy day. So, when disasters from floods to illness and accidents disrupt the flow of income to their households, they can at least keep their families fed.

“We used to starve during emergencies,” says bank member Tahera Begum, “but with the food bank, we always have something to eat.”

The way it works is this: twice a day when they are cooking rice, the women set aside a handful of the dry grain. In thirty days, that amounts to about a kilogram, and on the tenth of each month they gather to pool their edible savings. It’s an event to look forward to—a time to take a hard-earned break from the labor of their lives and celebrate their success.

They weigh and document each contribution and pour the grain into a sealed metal canister, where it’s safe from floods and rodents; they may add leaves from the neem tree to ward off bugs. From there, members of the group can withdraw rice as a loan or purchase, and replace it if they choose.

The food bank isn’t only a disaster-preparedness resource; it also serves as a bulwark against the everyday disaster of poverty.

Tahera’s husband was injured in an accident, so she has become the family breadwinner. She tried selling vegetables in the market, but the pressure on women to confine themselves to more traditional occupations in and around the home were too great, so she began hiring herself out to neighbors as a day laborer on their farms and in their houses. Hunger was a daily reality until she joined the food bank and the fundamental arithmetic of her life changed for the better: “We used to eat only one meal a day,” she says. “Now we have two or three.”

But there is another facet to the group: members who work together on this project have formed strong bonds that provide a source of emotional support and even fun.

“It feels good when everyone comes together,” says member Hamida Begum. (Note that Begum is such a common surname that it doesn’t suggest the women in this story are close relatives.)

Alifa Begum, who leads the fodder enterprise, offers a cow a food supplement. “We wanted to make the lives of women easier by making fodder for their cows easier to access.” Elizabeth Stevens/Oxfam

Fodder for the cows

Cows are an important part of life in rural Bangladesh; they are a source of food and in many cases, a cow may be a family’s only asset. But the pressure on land to house families and grow crops means the opportunities for grazing are scarce. The results are sad and worrying: the bodies of most cows are gaunt, and in their relentless quest for food, they pick through piles of garbage. But step into the village of North Bashata, not far from South Gabindi, and the animals look more contented. Their coats are healthy, and their bodies, while slender, have softer contours. They can take a break from foraging and lie down for a rest.

The difference is no mystery. In North Bashata, women have not only created a food bank but also a small enterprise that benefits the animals and their owners. In this area, most livestock feed comes from a market that’s a full 1.5 hours away. Not everyone can make the trip as often as it’s needed, and the cows here used to pay a heavy price for that.

The community came together around the idea of a fodder bank along the lines of a food bank, but in the end three women took the enterprise forward as a business. A business with a mission. “We wanted to make the lives of women easier by making fodder for their cows easier to access,” says Alifa Begum, who heads the group. “That was our inspiration.”

So, the women travel to the market to buy grains, supplements, and medicines; they buy them wholesale and transport them home—selling them retail, but at the same price the local farmers would pay if they made the trip themselves.

The result: cows in this community are getting enough to eat. And what a difference it’s making to everyone.

“Our cows used to be skinny. Now they are fatter, and they are giving more milk,” says Nurun Nahar, secretary for the group. “If a cow used to give 1.5 kg a day, now it’s 2.5.”

“It used to be that in times of disaster we had to sell our cows because we couldn’t feed them, and then we couldn’t get a good price for them,” she says. “Now, we can always feed them and they are healthier, so we don’t have to sell them until we really want to.”

SKS is like our family

Oxfam has been working in partnership with SKS for more than 20 years, supporting a variety of humanitarian and development projects. The food bank and fodder initiatives are part of a program known as ACT (Asia Community Disaster Preparedness and Transformation), which focuses on reducing disaster risks through community-based activities. Oxfam has provided SKS not only with funding for the projects; as part of our commitment to supporting local leadership, we have also offered trainings and resources to help strengthen the organization and its capacity in areas such as financial management, women’s empowerment, and risk analysis.

Together, SKS and Oxfam support community projects aimed at improving the safety and physical well-being of residents, as well as information that could transform the lives of women and girls in the communities—trainings on everything from women’s leadership to financial literacy to ending child marriage.

“Now, we understand the impact of child marriage and try to stop it,” says Narun. “If we don’t succeed locally, we use a Bangladesh government hotline. We’ve reported many cases.”

SKS doesn’t swoop in at times of emergency and then swoop out when the funding runs dry, as international agencies must do. They are there for the communities year in and year out. “If they were not here, our lives would be really difficult,” says Golapi Begum, treasurer of the fodder business. “SKS is like our family.”

As the climate crisis deepens the struggles and risks of vulnerable communities around the world, the women of the chars are finding ways to treasure and celebrate every possible win. Like the new life they’ve been able to give their animals.

“We are able to give more milk to the calves now, and they are beautiful and full of energy,” says Golapi. “Watching them running around makes me happy.”

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