Beirut, Lebanon – Despite the colourful decorations and bright lanterns adorning the streets, families across Lebanon are struggling to put food on the table during the holy month of Ramadan.
Meteoric increases in the cost of even simple staples have left many unable to afford a basic Iftar meal, turning what should be a period of celebration into yet another sour reminder of the country’s seemingly endless troubles.
According to new figures recently published by the American University of Beirut’s (AUB) Crisis Observatory, prices have already increased dramatically by as much as 300 percent for some basic items over the past year.
“We’re [publishing figures] weekly to show prices now compared with the prices of the same ingredients from past years,” Nasser Yassin, associate professor of policy and planning at AUB, told Al Jazeera.
“Shockingly, they have been increasing week-by-week – by 25 percent between the first day and the eighth day of Ramadan – which is surprising because the exchange rate did not change during that time.”
The Crisis Observatory’s data is based on the estimated cost of a “standard” family Iftar dinner consisting of a traditional Lebanese fattoush salad, lentil soup, chicken and rice, a portion of dates and a small serving of yoghurt, amounting to 60,243 pounds ($40) per day. This adds up to an astonishing 1.8 million pounds ($1,190) for the whole of Ramadan, 2.5 times the current Lebanese minimum wage of 675,000 pounds ($446) per month. Two years ago, the same meal would have cost just 14,798 pounds ($10) per day.
This notably does not include the cost of typical holiday treats, which are now so prohibitively expensive that few can entertain the idea of enjoying them.
“There are a lot of drinks, like jalleb [carob molasses drink] and fruit juices, and there are lots of sweets,” Yassin said. “Those have gone up insanely high in terms of the cost, because of the nuts and the oil and other ingredients needed, so you won’t see people with bags of those sweets. People are keeping things very basic.”
The Crisis Observatory’s model is inspired by the annual Fattoush Index, originally conceived by the Ministry of Economy and Trade in 2010, which tracks and compares the approximate cost of a bowl of fattoush for a family of five year-on-year.
Despite being made entirely from basic ingredients that are produced locally in Lebanon, the cost of even this simple salad has more than doubled since last year. As a result, families are cutting quantities, shifting to a vegetarian diet – as the price of meat is now unaffordable for many – or sacrificing quality and sticking to cheap, filling carbohydrates.
These increases are partly because farmers are having to buy imported supplies such as seeds and pesticides that must be paid for in US dollars, forcing them to contend with the outlandish black market exchange rates. However, the lack of proper price monitoring means sellers are able to charge what they want as the situation becomes ever more desperate.
“Pricing should take into consideration the cost of what producers are putting in, but also should look into the purchasing power of people,” Yassin said. “You need to value things in a way that’s balanced, but that’s not happening with some products, especially those that are basics.”
The spiralling devaluation of the Lebanese pound has left many unable to afford basic necessities. Many smaller businesses have been forced to close their doors, leaving their former employees economically stranded. Where many would have suffered in silence, mounting outrage and social activism are causing increasing numbers to speak out.
“People are not ashamed to tell their stories,” Soha Zaiter, executive director of the Lebanese Food Bank (LFB), told Al Jazeera.
“They want to show people that they are suffering. Before the revolution started in 2019, we received maybe 10 phone calls per day asking for help. Now we are receiving more than 100 phone calls, messages and emails from people who cannot afford to buy their own food.”
Originally created to combat food waste, the food bank is just one of many NGOs that have been forced to step in where state efforts have been ineffective. With government formation stalled because of an interminable political deadlock, the task of helping the people of Lebanon has fallen instead to charity organisations and volunteers.
Since last year, the organisation began distributing seeds, with instructions on how to grow fruits and vegetables, along with food boxes given to struggling families in an effort to help them become more self-sufficient. Rooftop gardens, communal allotments and window boxes are also becoming increasingly popular. During Ramadan, they have been providing Iftar meals to those who cannot afford a nutritious dinner otherwise.
The food bank also plans to further expand the scope of its operations next month with a new initiative that will benefit not only hungry families, but also help local farmers by providing them with much needed financial support.
“Farmers are not planting all of their fields because they cannot afford it, so we will give them money so they can plant all their properties, but on one condition – 25 percent of their crops will be donated to LFB, and we will then give them to social kitchens and distribute them to families in need,” Zaiter said.
While helpful in the short-term, NGOs cannot provide a permanent solution to Lebanon’s woes. Without a clear governmental plan to address the problems caused by the continuing financial crisis, the situation in Lebanon is likely to get worse before it improves. At present, many vital commodities – most crucially fuel – are subsidised, keeping prices relatively affordable, but those subsidies cannot be maintained indefinitely.
“If we lift fuel subsidies, everything is going to increase,” Yassin explained. “When importers of fuel – or other products – want to get dollars for their imports from the market, it means that there will be more demand for dollars. That would lead to the exchange rate becoming even higher and the local currency will devaluate further, and that’s worrying.”
“Lebanon is not the first or the last country to go into crisis, but we need the political stability in order to get the solutions into implementation,” he added. “Things might get much worse in the coming months, if we don’t manage these crises in an orderly way.”