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Many Venezuelans struggle to put food on the table in crisis

CARACAS – For Yeri Guerra, getting by during hard times in Venezuela means sometimes skipping meals so her two young boys still at home can eat before heading to school.

Other days, when things are even more desperate, she said, none of them eat.

“Sometimes, I don't send them to school because I don't have anything to give them for breakfast,” she said. “I keep them here at home.”

Guerra, 39, isn't alone.

According to a survey recently published by the U.N. World Food Program, one of every three Venezuelans cope with food insecurity, unable to get enough to meet their basic dietary needs.

In an apparent shift for Venezuela, people surveyed said food is now available in a country once riddled by shortages, but it's more difficult to afford because they've lost their jobs as Venezuela's crisis deepens.

The South American nation was once among Latin America's richest nations, sitting atop the world's largest oil reserves. But it has been on a steady downward spiral into social and economic crisis in recent years.

Remote states like Delta Amacuro, Amazonas and Falcon had especially high levels of food insecurity, the study says. In more prosperous regions, one in five people have trouble putting food on the table.

The capital, Caracas, has the nation's high concentration of wealth, but it's common to see children, the elderly and others looking for leftovers in garbage piles outside homes and behind restaurants.

When mangoes come into season, the poor are often seen in the streets throwing rocks and sticks high into trees, hoping to knock loose fresh fruit for a meal.

Wilfredo Corniel, a priest who organizes free meals in the Caracas slum called The Cemetery, said he was spurred to action upon seeing people rummaging through garbage.

“One day we saw a dog fighting with a man over a bone," Corniel said. "A bone that had nothing on it.”

Corniel said he's concerned about the long-term impact on young people who grow up without enough to eat and may suffer life-long health impacts.

The World Food Program's nationwide survey, released Feb. 23 and based on data from 8,375 questionnaires, reveals a startling picture of the large number of Venezuelans surviving off a diet consisting largely of tubers and beans as hyperinflation renders many salaries worthless.

A total of 9.3 million people — roughly one-third of the population — are moderately or severely food insecure, said the World Food Program’s study, which was conducted at the invitation of the Venezuelan government.

Venezuela's crisis has driven more than 4.5 million people to flee the nation. They're escaping inflation that's left the monthly minimum wage at the equivalent to roughly $4 and shortages of basic goods, such as medicine.

Despite the decline, President Nicolás Maduro has managed to stay in power despite the attempts of U.S.-backed opposition leader Juan Guaidó to overthrow him.

Maduro's government hasn't commented on the study.

For Guerra, home is a small apartment up a winding flight of stairs in the Caracaus slum of Petare, one of the largest and most violent in South America.

She talked about her family's struggles to eat one recent morning as she stood over a gas flame on her stove, flatting balls of cornmeal in her hands to make a Venezuelan staple called arepas.

She scrambled two eggs and fed her two boys, ages 4 and 11, at their kitchen table. She's occasionally able to afford a chicken drumstick, which they share, she said.

Her children aren't malnourished, thanks to a neighborhood soup kitchen run by a charity, where she and her two sons eat lunch five days a week. She often saves some of her lunch to have for dinner at night.

Other meals depends on how successful she is selling cookies and candy on the street. She earns about $5 a week, which she uses to buy other necessities.

Since September, she's been the lone provider for her family. Her husband went to work one day selling snacks on the street, only to be found beaten to death and robbed.

Guerra recalled just a few years ago how she and her relatives used to eat together without worrying about the next meal. Today, most of her relatives have emigrated to Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, leaving her with little more than memories of better times.

“I only wish that they could all return to Venezuela,” she said. “I wish we could be able buy what we wanted and to eat and have things.”

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Follow Scott Smith on Twitter: @ScottSmithAP