Photo courtesy Sri Lanka Ports Authority


But food consumption continues to be “well below” the pre-crisis period

By P.K.Balachandran

The Special Report of the FAO/WFP Crop and Food Security Assessment Mission (CFSAM) to Sri Lanka said in its report dated May 25, 2023, that the “food insecurity situation” in the country at the beginning of 2023, had improved materially.

In part, this could be the result of a seasonal effect of the harvest period and also the better affordability of specific nutrient-rich food varieties, the report explains.

However, food consumption continued to be “well below” the pre-crisis level. Pockets of acute food insecurity remained, particularly among the chronically vulnerable populations like those living in the Estate Sector and those dependent on the informal sector for income.

FAO and WFP surveyed 15,035 households from 20 February to 21 March 2023 covering each of the 25 districts of Sri Lanka. The urban, rural and estate populations were covered.

The survey found that 3.9 million people (17%) were “moderately acute food insecure” at the time of the mission. This represented an 11-percentage point decrease from May 2022 (28%).

The highest rates of food insecurity were among households where the head of the household had no education (34%). In contrast, households, where the head had completed secondary school education or a higher level, had significantly lower rates of food insecurity (11.8%).

The education level of the head of the household was significantly lower in female-headed households in the Estate Sector as well as among households relying on assistance, followed by those depending on unskilled labour and agricultural labour.

Rates of food insecurity also varied significantly among different income groups. The biggest proportion of food insecure households was found among those who mainly relied on social protection programs, such as Samurdhi and disability benefits (43%) followed by households dependent on unskilled/casual agriculture labour (31.6%), aid/gifts (30.6%) and production and sale of fish (29.8%).

On the other hand, the lowest percentage of food insecure households was among those who produced and sold staple crops such as rice, where only 6% of households were food insecure. This result is likely to be related to the period of the data collection, i.e., during harvest time of the main agriculture season, the report adds.

Discussions with households that relied on wage labor showed that the seasonal nature of their employment and fluctuating wages had led to inconsistent access to food. They reported that although their wage rates had increased, they were working a lesser number of days and, hence, there was no appreciable increase in income. In contrast, those who produced and sold staple crops had easier access to food.

Food consumption

Approximately 4.7 million people (21%) were not consuming an adequate diet at the time of the mission. But this represents a “substantial improvement” compared to the May 2022 assessment in which 39% of the households reported inadequate food consumption.

A large proportion of female-headed households (26%) were experiencing inadequate consumption compared to male-headed households (20%).

Regarding education, the results showed that a large proportion of households headed by individuals with no education reported inadequate consumption (32%), compared to households where the head of the household had completed primary (25%) or secondary school education or higher (18%).

In March 2023, households were broadly consuming more oil, proteins, pulses and sugar than they were in May 2022, while the consumption frequency of fruits and dairy had reduced.

In May 2022, fish consumed an average of 0.8 days/week compared to 1.7 days/week in March 2023. But despite the improvement, consumption of fish continued to be well below the consumption frequency before the crisis, which ranged between 2.4 and 4.4 days/week by the end of 2021.

Across all income quintiles, consumption of oil, proteins and pulses showed the largest increments, while consumption of fruits and dairy had reduced. The wealthier the quintile the better food consumption of all food groups, but mostly proteins, dairy and fruits.

Food-Based Coping Strategies

Food-based coping strategies involve restrictions on foods and food intake. More than half of households (56%) reported regularly using medium or high-food-based coping strategies because they did not have enough food or money to buy food.

But this was a “limited improvement” compared to May 2022 when 61% of households were regularly using these medium-high food-based coping strategies.

Findings from the March 2023 survey indicated that about one in every five households (19%) had been reducing the number of meals consumed in a day and about one-third (37%) had been reducing the portion sizes.

Overall, the level of food-based coping strategies had come down slightly across most sub-categories between May 2022 and March 2023. Of course, this did not apply to those who relied on help from friends and relatives (around 20%).

Estate Sector

Households in the Estate Sector were among the most likely to report regularly using food-based coping strategies (75%). The highest proportion of households employing “highly severe” food-based coping strategies was found among households relying on assistance (30%) followed by unskilled labour (19%).

A breakdown of coping strategies by the gender of the household head showed that a larger proportion of female-headed households tended to engage in food-based coping (63%) compared to male-headed households (54%) when faced with difficulties in accessing food.

Similarly, 74% of households, where the head of the household had no education, were engaged in “medium and high level” food-based coping strategies, significantly different compared to educated households (52%).

Livelihood-Based Coping Strategies

In addition to adjusting their food consumption patterns, households resorted to various “livelihood-based” strategies to cope with insufficient food access and availability. These strategies included selling productive assets (e.g., farming equipment), reducing essential health/education expenses, withdrawing children completely from school and selling land. Many of these strategies could negatively impact their ability to generate income or respond to future shocks.

The mission found that nearly two in three households across the country (62%)  had applied at least one livelihood-based coping strategy to cope with the lack of food or money to buy it. This represented a “material deterioration” in conditions compared to May 2022 when just under half of households (48%) reported the same.

The severity of the strategies employed had also slightly increased. The March 2023 survey revealed that nearly 26% of households employed emergency or crisis-level livelihood coping strategies, up from 23% in May 2022.

Compared to last year, these strategies are more frequent now, especially the proportion of households borrowing money from formal lenders that had increased by 28 percentage points. This also means that the improvement seen in food consumption in the previous section has come at the cost of borrowing money and loss of savings.

No significant differences were observed between livelihood coping strategies adopted by male and female-headed households, although female-headed households were slightly more likely to engage in emergency coping strategies.

Education attainment was negatively correlated with the livelihood-based coping strategies, with households having better-educated household heads less likely to adopt livelihood-based coping strategies.

More than one in three households (36%) in the lowest expenditure quintile reported employing emergency or crisis-level coping strategies in the month before the survey because they did not have enough food or money to buy food.

Similarly, one-third of households depending on assistance or unskilled daily wage labour were using such strategies that were likely to have a negative impact on their future earning ability (34 and 33% respectively).

Other household characteristics that were strongly correlated with emergency/crisis coping strategies included households headed by someone with no education (35%), Samurdhi beneficiaries (35%) and households with more than seven members (33%).