Fish Swimming Away from Household Budget!

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Sriyalatha, a mother of two, had to leave the weekly fair (Pola) with only two ‘sili sili’ bags of vegetables. She planned to buy meat and dry fish for the week too. However, even after spending more than Rs 5,000 she could not buy all the necessary food items. Therefore, she gave up the hope of buying poultry items.

“It is sad that I cannot feed my children with meat or fish. I feel helpless when I think about it. But we really cannot afford meat and fish now,” she said, with tears in her eyes.

This is the plight of most parents in Sri Lanka at the moment. The sight of people who turn away with empty hands from meat and fish stalls after hearing the prices has become a common scenario now.

Sri Lanka with a population of 22 million people continues to weather the hardships brought by its worst economic crisis in 70 years. Nearly 6.3 million Sri Lankans are food-insecure, while 6.7 million people are not consuming acceptable diets.

This is the latest data released by the World Food Programme (WFP). It clearly shows the sombre situation Sri Lankans are going through owing to the economic crisis.

Higher prices for food and other essentials, coupled with loss in income are making it increasingly difficult for families to afford sufficient nutritious food. According to the National Consumer Price Index, food inflation increased to 75.8 per cent in June, from 58 per cent in May 2022. The Colombo Consumer Price Index indicated that food inflation in the capital city Colombo is higher, at 80 per cent, during the same period.

Sri Lankans fulfil their protein needs by eating fish, meat, and eggs. Even before the economic crisis, many people did not consume meat and fish owing to poverty, especially in rural areas. Earlier, however, no matter how poor parents were, they somehow found the resources to feed their children with fish, meat, and eggs at least twice a week.

 A horrendous situation

(UNICEF) in its 2022 report on malnutrition in South Asia has said Sri Lanka has the second highest rate of malnutrition in the region with 17 per cent of children under five years suffering from chronic wasting.

Accordingly, it is estimated that around 1.7 million children have been affected by the economic crisis, with families living below the poverty line cutting down their three meals a day to two and in some cases from two to one.   

On Friday (19), a kilo of beef was priced at Rs 2,500 while, chicken was Rs 1,300. A kilo of Salaya was priced at Rs 1000 and a kilo of Kelawalla was priced at Rs 2,600. The price of a kilo of Sudaya was
Rs 700. An egg, which is the easiest way to fulfil the daily protein need, was priced at Rs 60 in some areas in the country.

The main reasons attributed for skyrocketing fish prices were the lack of fuel, mainly kerosene for the fishing community as well as increased transport costs. Owing to the fuel crisis many fishermen have abandoned going to sea. Also, finding vehicles to transport fish has become an issue at the same time.

With these soaring prices, children are deprived of fish, meat, eggs, and dried fish. A horrendous situation has been created, whereby parents have to skip meals to feed their children. This situation will soon escalate into a full-blown nutrition crisis, especially for children.

Poultry industry in crisis

According to the All Island Poultry Industry Association, the price of eggs and chicken could increase further in the coming months due to a shortage in animal feed.

President of the Association, Ajith Gunasekara said they need around 600,000 MT of maize annually for the production of animal feed. In the past, they got around 400,000 MT of maize locally and the rest was imported. A major share of the local production came from the Maha season.

However, the arbitrary chemical fertiliser ban crippled the country’s agriculture sector. As a result, we only managed to get around 75,000 MT last year. The situation became much worse due to the forex crisis and import restrictions. Until March this year, a kilo of maize was around Rs 70. But now it is about Rs 270, Gunasekara said.

Meanwhile, Trade and Food Security Minister, Nalin Fernando recently said it has been planned to use USD 20 million from a USD 1 billion credit line from India to import maize for animal feed.

How can we control the situation?

Addressing a media briefing organised by the Health Promotion Bureau (HPB) this week, Prof Pujitha Wickramasinghe, Senior Professor in Podiatrists at the Faculty of Medicine – University of Colombo said there could be an increase in malnutrition due to the economic and social issue at the moment. However, he said Sri Lanka still has the capability to control the situation from becoming a tragedy. 

“My utmost request is that the school system should be normalised once again. Because by going to school, students can develop physically and mentally and that is a great advantage for a student’s health”, Prof. Wickramasinghe said.

“We already face a malnutrition rate and it could increase at a time like this. However, the main factor that causes malnutrition is our wrong food habits. We think that sometimes we cannot survive without a particular food item.  For example, there is a concept in our society that without milk a child cannot grow. But that is completely false. Milk is only a part of food. This nutrition could be obtained from other items too, like curd or yoghurt and fish. It is important to understand what we should give our children,” he said.

“Sri Lankan society thinks that they cannot survive without consuming rice. But we can actually provide starch for ourselves through other food items for the three meals. There is also a saying that expensive food items are good for our health. This is a myth. Food items can be expensive due to the demand and the supply in the market and not because they are good or rich in quality”, he pointed out.

Speaking further, Prof. Wickramasinghe said freshwater fish (wew malu) is a great solution to address  malnutrition.

“We used to consume wew malu in the past a lot. But now, people are not used to eating wew malu that much. Research has shown that country or city-based food items can be helpful to control malnutrition. Specialised food can be given to control the situation, however, growth can be seen only when they are taken with localised food items. Therefore, it is important that we concentrate on consuming and growing local food”, he noted, adding that if the authorities can arrange proper mechanisms to transport locally grown vegetables, fruits and other food items, it would be a great help to control the situation.

“Also, there are school-based nutrition programmes. They are being initiated again in schools. So it is very important that we send our children to school again. By participating in these programmes they can obtain nutritionally and scientifically formulated recipes. Parents have an important responsibility in the whole situation, they have to manage local food and provide for their children. That will help to reduce the rate of malnutrition in children,” he elaborated.

BY Methmalie Dissanayake