This year, the Holy Month of Ramadan is anything but normal for the millions of people who observe it. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced families, who usually come together for Iftars and prayers, to isolate themselves, while lockdown measures have impacted the livelihoods and economic situation of millions across the globe. In Lebanon, the situation is even more dire, as the country tries to cope with the COVID-19 outbreak amid an unprecedented economic crisis, pushing an increasing number of families into poverty.
Even prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, ensuring that those struggling to make ends meet can put food on the table has been a key concern of the World Food Programme (WFP) in Lebanon and key donors including the European Union and Germany. This very access was threatened in late 2019 by the steady inflation in food prices, the unofficial devaluation of the Lebanese lira against the US dollar and the economic recession that is causing large-scale job losses and salary reductions.
With the support of the European Union, through the EU Madad Fund, and Germany, WFP Lebanon has been collaborating with the Ministry of Social Affairs since 2014 to help Lebanese families living below the poverty line. Ever since, more than 105,000 Lebanese households have been reached through the National Poverty Targeting Programme (NPTP), the Government of Lebanon’s social assistance programme that targets the poorest families across the country. The NPTP, which is led by the Ministry of Social Affairs and the Presidency of the Council of Ministers, has three components: education, health and food. WFP and its partners support the last component through a food e-card that allows families to redeem their assistance at shops that are contracted and monitored by the organisation.
“Now, all 11 of us, my entire family, can sleep with a full stomach,” said Khaled, a father of nine from the Beqaa region, adding: “What’s important is that my children never go to bed hungry and with this card we’re buying rice, beans, fruits and vegetables to feed the family.”
Khaled also explained how through this card, he didn’t risk breaking the early lockdown measures or contracting COVID-19 in order to search for a source of income. “I only left the house once or twice a month to go to the shop and buy food. I didn’t have to go out every day and risk catching the virus or breaking the measures in order to find any job to feed my family. This isn’t a normal Ramadan for us but with the food we’re getting through this card, we’re holding on to some of what this month means to my family,” he said.
The food e-card initiative began in 2014 with 5,000 households and increased to include 10,000 families in 2016. By the end of 2019, the number of households receiving food e-cards reached 15,000. They represent today close to 105,000 impoverished individuals, that have seen their situation further exacerbated with the COVID-19 lockdown measures and economic recession.
The NPTP food e-card provides a monthly assistance of LBP 50,000 per person for up to six persons in the household. The food e-card is strictly used in any of the 400+ WFP-contracted shops found throughout Lebanon. These shops were chosen as per WFP standards such as: the amount and quality of food items, hygiene and acceptable prices. The shops are regularly monitored to make sure that WFP guidelines are followed.
For Mayyada, a widowed mother of six, this card also means that all her family members can enjoy a full meal at Iftar. “We buy oil, burghul, lentils, rice, tea and as we prepare the meal we try to make it last for two days,” she said, adding: “Inflation and a lack of jobs have hit us hard but everyone in my family is able to eat and benefit from this card, especially now during Ramadan.”
Mayyada’s youngest child is three years old and one of her other children, who is barely 10, has a chronic kidney disease. “I can’t afford sending my children to sleep without a meal. I also want them to still feel like it’s Ramadan, a time to come together and be happy despite everything that’s going on in Lebanon.”
Khalil, another beneficiary of the NPTP food e-card, echoed Mayyada and Khaled’s thoughts and, for this father of nine, this support came just in time. “I was in a car accident not long ago and my injuries have drastically reduced my chances of finding a well-paid job to support my family. For the longest time I used to ask friends and other family members for support to put food on the table. This is every father’s nightmare,” Khalil said, adding: “Thank God we can have a decent Iftar every night and celebrate Ramadan, but I would be lying if I told you the situation is ideal. The inflation and economic crisis have really hit us hard and I think many families as well, not just mine.”
Everyone should have safe and equal access to lifesaving, nutritious meals. In recent months, food access, availability and affordability has emerged as a major issue in Lebanon, affecting thousands of individuals and families. With the support of the European Union and Germany and in collaboration with the Ministry of Social Affairs, WFP is urgently seeking to protect the most vulnerable, while looking at building a sustainable social assistance system in Lebanon, as well as economic and fiscal policies impacting poverty and food security.
“With this assistance we also try to save food for the winter by preparing the mouneh [traditional process of preserving food in the pantry],” Khalil said, “I sometimes also buy some biscuits for my children. These are difficult times, but children are children. I thank God for this card because I don’t have to worry about struggling for a meal or even biscuits for them.”