BEIRUT: A team of six employees wearing protective masks and gloves at the Lebanese Food Bank warehouse finished packing over 50 boxes of food in under 45 minutes, to be distributed to families in need across the country.
Demand for boxes has risen by approximately 50 percent since Lebanon implemented lockdown measures to curb the spread of coronavirus, says Janine El Murr, communications manager at the Lebanese Food Bank.
“Demand has grown a lot. We were already going through an economic crisis, and now because of coronavirus there are people sitting at home not receiving salaries and food prices have been going up in an unimaginable way,” Murr told The Daily Star.
The lockdown, which has forced citizens to stay in their homes and shut down public and private institutions, has placed an added burden on a population already struggling with a deteriorating economy.
In the Arab region as a whole, U.N.-ESCWA estimates that at least 1.7 million jobs will be lost due to the coronavirus pandemic.
One box from the Lebanese Food Bank can feed a family of four for up to one month and is packed with basic food items including rice, pasta, sugar, tomato paste and vegetables.
Because of coronavirus, each box is now packed with hygiene kits including sanitizers, soap and information pamphlets on the disease to prevent infection.
The Lebanese Food Bank, which is funded by financial and food donations, sends the food boxes to 85 non-governmental organizations, which they then distribute them to vulnerable families and individuals across the country.
Poverty and food insecurity levels are already high in Lebanon with 27 to 30 percent of people living beneath the national poverty line, the United Nations estimates.
As the world and Lebanon struggle with the economic impacts of COVID-19, community initiatives and self-organization are critical to ensuring that people have access to food, says Martin Keulertz, assistant professor on food security at the American University of Beirut.
“Right now we have a health emergency that is being addressed, but we also need to bear in mind the long-term consequences of COVID-19 and food security may be one of them,” Keulertz told The Daily Star.
“A lot of people are already living off of two meals a day, and struggling to make ends meet. Impact on the poor could be drastic and the major concern is that people won’t be able to afford food,” Keulertz said.
While Lebanon is self-sufficient in vegetable and food products, it imports around 85 percent of its food, Keulertz said. High dependency on food imports makes the country’s food security increasingly more vulnerable to economic pressures and unpredictable global trade restrictions that can be imposed due to the pandemic.
But this is no reason for people to panic. Keulertz added that food security is not just about focusing on production of food but also about how people in Lebanon consume it.
“How do we make sure that through clever consumption patterns we don’t overuse available food supplies?”
Keulertz said that demand has to be shifted toward products that are locally grown. For example, eating meat and dairy is not sustainable because many of these products are not produced in Lebanon.
“You can live on a smaller footprint by eating more of a sustainable traditional Lebanese diet which is rich in fruit, vegetables, legumes and includes whole grains like bulgur,” Keulertz added.
As well as a sustainable diet, local community organization is crucial to ensuring food security for all. “We must look at the most vulnerable and provide them with food and contain the fallout of COVID-19.”
“We can’t expect much from the state so we have to work on a community level. This can be on a family level, street level and district level,” Keulertz explained.
The Lebanese government has so far provided minimal support for vulnerable families to mitigate the impacts of lockdown measures, which have for many citizens resulted in loss of jobs and salaries.
Lebanon’s Cabinet agreed Tuesday to provide L.L.400,000 (which converts to a meager $130 on the secondary market) in financial assistance to families most in need, many of whom are struggling to make ends meet from losing work as a result of the lockdown.
The lack of support on the state level has caused many in the Lebanese community to mobilize and organize food distribution initiatives to help families most in need.
Murr said that she has been contacted by several NGOs and student-run initiatives for logistical assistance with food drop offs.
“The Lebanese community is definitely helping each other. Even groups across the country are taking their own initiative to help families who are struggling to afford food,” Murr added.
One such initiative is Ketfe bi Ketfak, translating to “my shoulder with your shoulder,” which was started by students from AUB’s and Saint Joseph University’s Secular Clubs.
Sylvana Ayoub, a student at Saint Joseph University and Ketfe bi Ketfak volunteer, said the team managed to reach over 70 families in Beirut during their first food distribution round.
For the next round, Ayoub said they hope to spread out to areas including Sidon and Tyre.
The student initiative partnered with local hunger relief organization FoodBlessed, which is responsible for packaging the food.
“We see families in need everywhere and on every street and corner. We thought it was our basic duty to help these families,” Ayoub added.
Many food distribution organizations and initiatives have witnessed an overwhelming increase in the number of calls from individuals who have been financially impacted by pandemic lockdown measures.
Local initiative Shaabemasouliyati (translating to “my people are my responsibility”), received 2,300 calls in just two days, according to Mira Baroudi, a founding member.
The organization, which distributes food, cooked meals and sanitization products, used to receive around 100 calls a week before the pandemic.
“It has been overwhelming, the number of people asking for help, saying they lost their jobs and are not getting paid,” Baroudi said.
Lebanese NGO Beit al-Baraka, translating to “house of good fortune,” has also registered a steep increase in demands for food boxes.
Beit al-Baraka currently supports families across Lebanon with emergency aid such as food, blankets, clothing and medical care.
The NGO, which typically focuses on helping Lebanese retirees, is now working with the Lebanese Food Bank on an initiative that aims to support 50,000 additional households in need during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Since last week, we have been receiving between 600 to 1000 daily requests asking for food. We can’t keep track anymore. Usually it’s one or two phone calls a day asking for help,” said Maya Chams, president of the organization.
While citizens are asked to stay at home for their safety and the safety of others, employees and volunteers of these initiatives have been putting themselves at risk to ensure the most vulnerable have access to food.
Thirty-year-old Mohammad Ramadan, a driver for the Lebanese Food Bank, said that it is a risk he is happy to take.
“People are in need. Yes, it is dangerous, but we’re happy we can help, especially because people can’t leave their houses right now. We can alleviate their hardships,” Ramadan concluded.