Urban hunger has deepened across Zimbabwe over the past three years, with families cutting back on their quantity and quality of food, according to a joint UN and government assessment.
The Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment Committee's (ZimVAC) survey, Urban Food Security Assessment: January 2009 National Report, is the first since 2006, and reflects a sample of 2,677 households.
"Since the last ZimVAC assessment in 2006, the food security situation for the majority of the urban population in high-density and peri-urban areas has been worsening," said the report.
National urban food insecurity increased from 24 percent in November 2006 to 33 percent by January 2009, with the worst affected areas in Matabeleland North, the westernmost province, and Manicaland Province, bordering Mozambique.
The number of households consuming three meals a day declined from 54 percent in 2006 to 23 percent in 2009, "clearly indicating that households are reducing the number of meals as a coping strategy", the ZimVAC noted.
Trying to cope
"Limiting the size of portions, relying on less preferred foods and reducing the number of meals were the most common coping strategies among interviewed households," said the report.
"This is consistent with the shift of the highest proportion of surveyed households reporting having three meals per day in 2006, compared to the highest proportion of households assessed in 2009 having two meals per day."
According to the ZimVAC, households were also making do with less varied diets, with the average food consumption score - indicating the diversity of food on the table - declining from 64.88 percent in 2006 to 46.52 percent in 2009.
|Even those families generally considered food secure were resorting to selling household property to augment their food stocks|
The researchers found that diets rich in carbohydrates, proteins, vegetables, oils and fats were "considered as luxuries by households when they struggle to make ends meet".
Most of the foodstuffs consumed by families were obtained through purchases, with own production - particularly of vegetables - supplementing the food basket.
Almost one-third of households interviewed confessed they had sold some of their assets, including livestock, to purchase food: even those families generally considered food secure were resorting to selling household property to augment their food stocks, but the trend "is worrying, as it is likely creating a vicious cycle of impoverishment".
The survey suggested a lower reliance on remittances than perhaps previously thought. "The proportion of households reporting someone who support them [financially] from time to time declined from 28 percent in 2006 to 19 percent in 2009."
An estimated three million to four million Zimbabweans - in a population of 12 million - have left the country, and their remittances are believed to be one of the keys to the continued solvency of households at home.
Urban agriculture, which over the years has been disrupted by municipal authorities who argued that town dwellers were flouting regulations, "continues to be one of the important sources of livelihoods for the majority of households in the peri-urban and high-density areas, after petty trading, cross-border trading and self employment", the report said. However, urban crop production has fallen in the last three years.
Accordidng to the ZimVAC, Zimbabwe's humanitarian crisis dates from 2000, the result of "a complex web of overlapping factors, some of which include erratic weather patterns; hyperinflation; shrinking economy and a receding international community".