Saturday, October 30, 2010

Feed Me Seymour!

Food prices are really high in Dhaka. It has become a problem (actually it has been a problem for a long time, but it has been particularly bad lately) even for us. The rate of inflation here is pretty dramatic and we have watched food prices (and other prices) steadily increase over the last year and a half. It is easy to notice with goods that you buy regularly- a dozen eggs a year ago cost 65 taka; today it costs 95 taka. That’s a pretty huge increase – almost 50% in one year. Wages certainly have not increased that much.

In fact, we were doing the math and figured we probably spend as much on food here in Dhaka as we did in Boston, which is pretty unbelievable. We don’t really buy a lot of imported or fancy pre-made stuff and eat fairly cheap in general, but food has just gotten absurdly priced here. 1 kilo of the cheapest rice is 25-28 taka, which doesn’t seem like much, but consider that the new minimum wage instituted by the government (which hasn’t even been enforced yet and which most people make far below) is 3000 taka month – that is 100 taka a day. So, ¼ of a day’s salary for a kilo of rice- that’s really expensive. It also isn’t a meal- you have to add even more taka for oil, veggies, lentils, fish, meat, or whatever to make a complete meal. It is hard to survive in this city for a lot of families right now, and just seems like it is getting harder.

We’re obviously nowhere near the dire straights that so much of the population here is in, but as we’re winding down to the end of our own living stipend as well, the food prices are hitting us too. For the next and last month and a half of our stay, we’re trying to really keep our budget together and be careful about grocery spending. We’ve been reminded that the more fresh vegetables we eat, the cheaper we eat (what a switch from the US where produce is so expensive!) and the more local we eat, the cheaper we eat. These are great added benefits of eating cheap, and we don’t mind one bit. (On the down side, there is however a much increased food preparation time with preparing fresh ingredients, and any skimping on that means someone will probably get diarrhea for the night or even a few days so we have to be vigilant. It really isn’t that hard to stay motivated on that though…).

Anyhow, for point of illustration, we thought we’d share a comparative of what 380 taka (about 5-6 US dollars, depending on the exchange rate) can get you. Here is illustration A:

On one hand, you have a fairly hefty collection of long beans, bean sprouts, cauliflower, capsicum (green pepper), some limes and some potatoes. Lots of options as well – you could maybe even get a couple meals out of this if you add a few eggs one day and rice another. So for about 400 taka you could maybe get one or two meals. It is also all mostly locally produced- so you’ve given farmers work and contributed to the local economy.

Or, for the same amount of money, you could buy this, illustration B:

Yep, 2 liters of skim milk. 190 taka each. (Although, we love that this is Harvey Milk!) You’d have to add quite a bit to get a meal out of this. It is also shipped over from Australia, so you’ve polluted the environment and done very little for the local economy.

So, truth be told, there is some local milk available. It is weird though, and full cream, which means Sam will be lying on the floor in a fetal position for two hours after eating it (OK, maybe not so dramatic, but still, lactose and Sam aren’t friends). Also, to really drive home the cost of imports, consider that for the same 400 taka, you couldn’t even get ONE bag of Tostitos tortilla chips. Those cost almost 500 taka a bag (um, yes, that is over $7 US!).

The point is that food is expensive, but buying locally and freshly are some great benefits of cheapness. As prices continue to rise though, we see the options for the vast majority of the city getting smaller and smaller. There is a real food problem here, and in a land of such abundance agriculturally, that is inexcusable. If the government won’t voluntarily step up and do something about the populations access to food, then the people will demand it – and rightfully so.

Anyway, we have to go wash some vegetables…

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