CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Until recently, Julio Noguera worked at a bakery. Now he spends his evenings searching through the garbage for food.
“I come here looking for food because if I didn’t, I’d starve to death,” Noguera said as he sorted through a pile of moldy potatoes. “With things like they are, no one helps anyone and no one gives away meals.”
Across town, unemployed people converge every dusk at a trash heap on a downtown Caracas sidewalk to pick through rotten fruit and vegetables tossed out by nearby shops. They are frequently joined by small business owners, college students and pensioners – people who consider themselves middle class even though their living standards have long ago been pulverized by triple-digit inflation, food shortages and a collapsing currency.
Venezuela’s poverty had eased during the administration of the late President Hugo Chavez. But a study by three leading Caracas universities found that 76 percent of Venezuelans are now under the poverty line, compared with 52 percent in 2014.
Staples such as corn flour and cooking oil are subsidized, costing pennies at the strongest of two official exchange rates. But fruit and vegetables have become an unaffordable luxury for many Venezuelan families.
“We’re seeing terrible sacrifices across many sections of society,” said Carlos Aponte, a sociology professor at the Central University of Venezuela. “A few years ago, Venezuela didn’t have the kind of extreme poverty that would drive people to eat garbage.”
While some search through the garbage piles for food they can eat, many more are drawn by the opportunity to fetch a few bolivar bills by rescuing and reselling bruised produce.
On a recent evening, Noguera managed to retrieve a dozen potatoes.
“I’m a trained baker, but right now there’s no work anywhere here. So I make do with this,” he said.
The trash pickers aren’t just people who’ve lost their jobs.
Jhosriana Capote, a vocational student, comes to the trash heap to supplement her pantry. She recently completed an internship with a Coca-Cola subsidiary.
“I used to be able to find food, but not anymore. Everything is lines,” she said after an evening picking through the refuse.
Dumpster diving isn’t a new phenomenon in Venezuela, but it is a growing one. Venezuela was once South America’s richest nation, but a fall in oil prices combined with other economic problems has sparked desperation.
Nearly half of Venezuelans say they can no longer afford to eat three meals a day, according to a recent poll by the local firm Venebarometro. The poll surveyed 1,200 adults at their homes the first week in April and had a margin of error of plus or minus of about 2 percentage points.
The government blames the political opposition, accusing it of waging an “economic war” to stir unrest and oust President Nicolas Maduro from power. The administration has launched an aggressive program to build urban farms in an effort to address food shortages.
One recent night, two young girls found some cilantro, lemons and remains of a cabbage in the garbage. Their mother, Monica Espinosa, said the scavenging helps them get by since her husband walked out on the family. Espinosa said she still owns two apartments, but makes ends meet by cooking sauces from the vegetables she finds and selling them to stores, earning about $6 a week.
“I’m a single mother with two children, and this is helping me get by,” she said.