A Meal Around the World: What a Plate of WFP Food Looks Like in 9 of the World’s Hungriest Countries

World Food Program USA
January 15, 2020
Photo: WFP/Gabriela Vivacqua

Have you ever wondered what dinner or breakfast is like for people who don’t get enough to eat?

Oftentimes, many of the people we write about rely solely on the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) for their basic needs, but what does that look like in their day-to-day lives? The needs of the millions of people around the world who live in extreme poverty or face challenges such as conflict, natural disasters or displacement are varied. Some need safe places to live, some need schools, others need access to health care. But the one thing they all need is food. This is where the U.N. World Food Programme comes in—from beans and grains to snack bars and micronutrient powders. Food brings families together, especially when times are tough. From chicken soup in El Salvador to lentil porridge in Bangladesh, these are the meals that provide both survival and solace.

Meat stew reminds this refugee family of home

Rajaa (far right), Bahjat (second from left) and their six children enjoy a meal of meat stew in their two-bedroom Beirut apartment. The stew is Rajaa’s favorite dish, which she makes with onions, butter, moghrabieh (a larger variation of couscous commonly used in Middle Eastern cooking), meat, yogurt and some “secret” spices. It’s also a rare treat. The refugee family, which fled Syria in 2012, depends entirely on external support for survival, including $27 a month that WPF provides each family member to buy food. “We can only afford meat twice a month,” Rajaa explains.

For refugee families like Rajaa’s, being able to re-create a favorite meal means a lot. After being away from home for five years, maintaining such traditions helps keep the memory of home alive. For Rajaa, making her mother’s meat stew is something to look forward to every second Friday. It is an anchor and a source of stability in a time of uncertainty.

Rice and beans: simple but lifesaving

It’s hard to believe this smiling little girl’s home had just been destroyed by Cyclone Idai when this photo was taken. She and a dozen other family members were living at their great-grandmother’s house after the floods destroyed crops in the area and most people lost their jobs. In this photo, some of the younger family members have come together for a warm, humble meal of rice and beans. The U.N. World Food Programme supported the government’s disaster response by providing lifesaving food assistance to local communities, including two-week rations of rice, beans and cooking oil. For this little girl and her fellow diners, this was their only meal of the day.

Chicken soup with homegrown vegetables

Cristina Martinez Perez (top left) and her family enjoy a meal of chicken soup that she made. As part of a Resilience and Climate Change Program, the U.N. World Food Programme provides agricultural training in Cristina’s community on topics like soil conservation and irrigation. Families now have access to a wider range of foods—tomatoes, sweet peppers, eggplant, green beans, pipián, squash and coriander—and can earn money by selling the surplus. Participants receive vouchers from the U.N. World Food Programme for their participation in the program, which they redeem for cash at local banks and use to purchase food for their families. Chicken soup is a rare site on Cristina’s table. She only makes it when she receives her U.N. World Food Programme voucher, as she cannot afford the ingredients without it.

Rice and lentil porridge—a comfort food

Hanufa is preparing a lunch of rice and lentils. She and her family are part of the hundreds of thousands who fled from violence in Myanmar to seek safety in Bangladesh. WFP has been providing these refugees with high-energy biscuits and has been supplying rice to community kitchens, where people can get a hot meal of khichuri: a kind of rice and lentil porridge. Food distributions, even simple ones such as these, provide solace to people arriving at the overcrowded camps – hungry and desperate – looking for somewhere to take shelter and rest. Most arrive nutritionally deprived, having been cut off from a normal flow of food for more than a month.

Sharing a meal of sorghum

Nyanut Lual Aleu, 35, joins her family for a meal of stewed beans and sorghum cakes, ingredients from the U.N. World Food Programme. Although hunger prevails in many parts of South Sudan, there are small pockets of stability where the U.N. World Food Programme is helping locals close short-term hunger gaps and build resilience against future challenges. Nyanut is very happy to be part of the program. “My life changed completely since I am in the program,” she says. “I was able to build a new house and send my seven children to school. Now I can buy what is important for me. I am improving little by little. Now I cultivate my own food in my garden, I am so happy!”

Vegetable stew, bread and rice – a staple in uncertain times

Walid and his two eldest daughters are getting ready to eat a simple lunch of bread, rice and a traditional Yemeni vegetable stew called salta, which his wife prepared. The war in Yemen has left nearly 16 million Yemenis uncertain of where their next meal will come from. Walid’s family depends almost entirely on the U.N. World Food Programme food assistance, which is a ration of beans, oil and wheat flour, which they use to make the bread. It keeps them stocked for most of the month. “Today is the end of the month,” he says, “so we do not have much food left, but at least we do know that some help will be on the way soon.”

Colorful plates signal better nutrition

This family from Maguindanao in the Philippines is sharing a diverse meal of vegetables, rice and noodles in their hut. The carrots, green beans and onions provide vital micronutrients while the U.N. World Food Programme fortified rice is high in vitamins and minerals like Vitamins A, B6, C and Iron. U.N. World Food Programme assistance in the region focuses on increasing long-term food security while helping communities prepare for disasters.

Breaking the fast with chicken, rice and tomatoes

Abu Majd, his wife Umm Majd, and their three children fled from conflict in their hometown in Syria to take refuge in Jordan. Here, they break their fast on the first day of Ramadan with a meal of chicken, rice and tomatoes. Abu Majd, a builder and stonemason, can’t find work anywhere, though he’s sometimes hired for a few hours as a porter in the camp, carrying goods around by wheelbarrow. The U.N. World Food Programme has been delivering urgently-needed food assistance to Syrians living in these transit centers in Jordan since the start of the violence.

Small dishes are still shared

“Come on, have some!” Two Syrian ladies invite their guests to partake of the colorful platter they are sharing, which includes olives, tomatoes, cucumbers and a few other small dishes. It’s barely enough for one adult, much less two or more, but the act of sharing is important to them. They are living in one of 25 camps in Turkey, built and run by the Turkish government to accommodate Syrian refugees. The U.N. World Food Programme has been providing electronic debit cards to the refugees, which enables them to do their own grocery shopping. The cards are the reason for the fresh produce seen here, which would be out-of-reach otherwise.

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Whether they’re managing to survive on one meal a day or doing their best to make a meal out of little more than rice, the resilience of hungry families around the world is inspiring. Despite the challenges around them, they’re carrying on culinary traditions, preserving family recipes and building community with what little they have. Mealtimes reveal the universal comfort and sense of belonging that even a simple loaf of bread can bring about, and the U.N. World Food Programme works tirelessly to ensure that this basic human right is afforded to the world’s most vulnerable people.