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To be free from hunger, Venezuelans turn to cheap bananas, cassava

Crisis changes diets in oil-rich country's blue-collar neighborhoods

BOGOTA, Colombia – Venezuelan dishes like the asado negro, a fat roast of beef that is simmered in caramel for hours, or the chivo en coco, a coastal region specialty made out of shredded goat meat and coconut milk, were part of the traditional gastronomy for generations.

The quick hallacas with pork stuffing and the arepas with beef filling were not absent from Venezuelans' childhood memories. They didn't have to be wealthy to get a Piscada Andina, a chicken broth with diced eggs and potatoes, or a Pabellon Criollo with shredded beef and beans. 

"These days, this is a luxury," Juan Vela said while holding a dead fish at a street stand. 

The oil-rich country's traditional menu, which used to be loaded with proteins and calories, has changed radically in blue-collar neighborhoods. The child malnutrition crisis has increased child mortality, so Jose Napoleon said he is doing his best to keep his family from starving. It's a challenge. 

"We don't even have juice anymore," Napoleon said, as he stood near his open-fire cooking stove.

The government's food handouts are not enough for Napoleon and his family. And those could diminish, if U.S. President Donald Trump's administration acts on reports that the military-run emergency food aid program is used to launder money. 

Napoleon said that to avoid skipping meals they depend on a cheap starchy root vegetable known as cassava, manioc or yuca. It can be fried, boiled and mashed like potatoes. Some follow a tedious process to turn it into a gluten-free flour. 

The surging malnutrition and starvation cases started with the government's strict food rationing, but the rampant hyperinflation made it worst. Many working-class Venezuelans regularly skip breakfast and are forced to have a plate of rice or beans for dinner. 

In Caracas, it is not unusual to see the poor and unemployed rummaging through garbage. The collapsing health care system could make taking a risk like that for someone who is malnourished deadly. 

Power outages make refrigerators unreliable. Water service disruptions complicate cooking. Food vendors at street markets -- where a whole chicken or a carton of eggs costs about half a monthly minimum wage -- are working to meet new demands. 

Yolbis Cato said there is a growing demand for bananas. He said it's because people are hungry and they are replacing full meals with cheap fruits. Jose Mejea said his daily fast lunch is "the most delicious" and "affordable" bananas. 

While some Venezuelans who lose weight jokingly say they are on the Maduro diet, referring to the country's embattled president, Mejea said that when he is starving his "liberator" is the banana. 

"It gets rid of your hunger," Mejea said.