CARACAS – For many Venezuelans, who simply can't find food at affordable prices, they have little option but to turn to the city's trash to try to feed their family.
Jefferson Vielma said he and his wife, Hillary Mesa, begin their hunt for food about 6 p.m., when most supermarkets take out their trash. The father of a 1-year-old son said he lost his job at a restaurant about a year ago.
"Since I don't have a job, what I do is I go through the trash in the supermarket or from these apartments to search for anything we can eat," Vielma said in Spanish.
As in most cities, dumpster diving has always existed, but the practice has undoubtedly become more common in Caracas, where the middle class is dwindling into poverty.
"When people look at me, I feel embarrassed," Vielma said. "People come up to me to give me something, when they see what I'm doing, and i am so embarrassed."
In tears, Mesa said some who don't understand their predicament judge them out of ignorance. Many are suffering in silence in Venezuela, where hunger is becoming more widespread and desperate. This week the crisis led to scuffles during a protests outside of Venezuela's Food Ministry.
The sight of desperate fathers like Vielma has become increasingly common. It is hard to believe that this is happening in an oil-rich country where in 1991 the percentage of those suffering from undernourishment fell from 14 percent to 5 percent, according to United Nations data.
President Nicolas Maduro's opposition in Miami blames the hyperinflation and the food shortages on Venezuela’s socialist economic policies. Maduro blames the economic crisis, which has reached historic levels, on tactics from an opposition that enjoys the support of the U.S. "empire."
Politics aside, the crisis is driving poverty rates to 81 percent, according to a study by three universities -- the Venezuela’s Central University, Andrés Bello and Simón Bolívar.
The Venezuelan Health Watch and the Bengoa Foundation have also been monitoring the situation, as poverty, inflation and food shortages continue to prompt Venezuelans to skip meals and lose weight.
Maritza Landaeta de Jiménez, of the Bengoa Foundation, said the alarming statistics are not a surprise. She said about 32 percent of Venezuelans report eating only two times a day or less and about 50 percent who reported living in poverty say they are eating less.
While encouraging "food sovereignty" last year, Maduro asked Venezuelans to grow their own food. And earlier this year, Maduro announced an increase of 42 percent in food vouchers for workers. But the impact of this increase had little effect in the life of Vielma who remains unemployed.
Local 10 News Andrea Torres contributed to this report.