Hunger games, Jamaica-style

If anyone asked “How many Jamaicans are living in Poverty?” or “How many Jamaicans go hungry every day?” No one could give an answer. That’s common in any country. Large national and international organizations collect survey data, which try to measure these statistics. The World Bank reported that 17.6 percent of the population was in poverty in 2010, having risen sharply from 10 percent in 2007.

Classic view of urban poverty in Jamaica
Classic view of urban poverty in Jamaica

To make it easier to visualise, that’s about one person in five.

But, every day, it is easy to meet hungry and poor people in Jamaica. Take this morning. I was out, about to take some exercise. Up to me sidled a young man whom I know. “Beg you a food, Missa Dennis.” I told him, honestly, that I did not have any money. His eyes looked at the ground; he shuffled then headed back to where he had been sitting.

We know that many school children go to school each day hungry in Jamaica. Some are covered part of the time by school feeding programs. An article I read last year stated: The Government has budgeted J$4 billion to feed public school students, 30 per cent of whom often count the State-sponsored meal services as their only chance to eat. The Education Ministry and Ministry of Social Security carry the heavy financial burden to provide at least one meal per day to hungry children within the island’s public school system.

A child with a plate of food in Jamaica
A schoolchild with a plate of food in Jamaica

Many children, especially at the primary levels, eat only half of the meal at school, while taking home the other half for dinner. So, thousands of early childhood students come to school hungry; an estimated over 30 per cent.

Children currently being fed include 136,000 who get meals through Nutrition Products Limited; 175,000 across all school types who get cooked lunches; and a further 211,000 who get Programme for the Advancement Through Health and Education nutritional support.

Currently, 5,000 students getting nutritional support from the State are in early childhood institutions; 206,000 in primary, all-age, and secondary schools.

In addition, a pilot breakfast programme was also implemented in 37 schools in the Corporate Area and included 8,156 students. That meal is supported by locally produced foods such as ripe bananas, plantains, potatoes, carrots, and liquid eggs. Bananas are to be used for baked products and discussions are under way for sausage or chicken to minimise the use of imported chicken back, corn beef, and mackerel.

Poverty has several features in any country. People who are on the street, naked, half-naked, dirty, somewhat or totally deranged, may be one image of poverty, but it’s a certain visible form. Others, look clean, and as indicated above, may look like regular school children. They may not look emaciated, as we have seen with images of starving children in many African countries. Many poor people have rough lives with poor housing or other amenities, trying to work hard to make a living. They may be in urban areas, or in fields around the country.

Some communities have no running water: a news report this week lauded the arrival of piped water in a rural area, and the joy was palpable when people talked about not having to go to the river each morning to fetch water, including children who did this before walking to school.

I read a comment last week from someone–let’s call him ‘comfortably off’–who was annoyed that his offer of food was refused by a street person. It never seemed to occur to the person concerned that at that moment, hunger might not have been the problem. Bus fare to get somewhere? An offer of work to stave off the daily grind of begging? The bottom line was the supposed beneficiary was never asked about his/her needs.

Conversely, it is easy to find people who will devour any morsel of food that’s offered. As in other places where hungry people are visible, we may see the discomforting sight of people going through garbage to find something to eat.

For too many, it’s a very hard life.



Author: Dennis G Jones (aka 'The Grasshopper')

Retired International Monetary Fund economist. My blog is for organizing my ideas and thoughts about a range of topics. I was born in Jamaica, but spent 30 years being educated, living, and working in the UK. I lived in the USA for two decades, and worked and travelled abroad, extensively, throughout my careers and for pleasure. My views have a wide international perspective. Father of 3 girls. Also, married to an economist. :)

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