My Venezuela Nightmare: A 30-Day Hunt for Food in a Starving Land

The diary of a desperate mother trying to put food on the kitchen table.

Editor’s note: The looting, the blackouts, the mob lynchings, the hospitals with no supplies. Venezuela’s collapse into disarray is of a scale unseen in the Western Hemisphere in decades. In an effort to illustrate what day-to-day life is like on the ground, Bloomberg reporter Fabiola Zerpa documented her efforts to secure food for her middle-class family. This is a selection of entries from her month-long chronicle.

Caracas Venezuela
Zerpa drives past a small barrio on her way to a store, having visited several supermarkets and kiosks in search of shortage products on a Thursday afternoon.

June 9

Thursday. My one chance in the week to buy staples—cooking oil, rice, laundry detergent—at state-set prices. All Venezuelan adults are assigned days of the week to shop for regulated goods based on the numbers on our national ID cards. My days are Sundays and Thursdays. Sundays are useless, though. Stores stopped selling regulated goods over the weekend a long time ago. Thursdays are only marginally more useful. For the past several months, the lines at the two supermarkets near my house in eastern Caracas have been so long, stretching out for two blocks, that it’d take hours to get a chance to shop. And then there’s no guarantee I’ll find anything once inside.

Still, I drive by the supermarkets in the morning to give them a quick look. No chance. They’re so jam-packed, there isn’t even a spot to park. I keep going. My reporting assignment on this day will take me to several parts of the city, so, of course, I’ll be on the prowl for something, anything I can take back to my two kids—an eight-year-old boy and ten-year-old girl—and husband Isaac.

I step into a pharmacy. Isaac is running low on his cholesterol medication. His doctor has prescribed him Vytorin or Hiperlipen. The store has neither. But wait, the pharmacist says: there’s a lab in India that just cut a deal with the government to supply medicine here; they produce an anti-cholesterol pill. I don’t like the idea at all—who knows what this stuff is?—but it’s better, I figure, than taking the risk that he’ll run out of medicine. I grab four boxes.

Around midday, I swing by a bakery in search of bread. I’m greeted, impatiently, by a young woman. “We only sell bread at 5 p.m., señora.” On my way out, I notice a sign on the front door that I somehow missed on my way in: “NO BREAD.” As I get back in my car, I realize I’m low on cash. I head to a nearby ATM. It’s out of money.

But later, as my day’s winding down, I stumble upon a little treasure. At a local kiosk, I spot a generic, lactose-based product. It isn’t quite milk—that’s almost impossible to find—but it’s worth a try. Maybe the kids will like it. I walk away with two bottles in my hand and a huge smile on my face.

Venezuela milk substitute
Zerpa chats with a fellow shopper about two cartons of milk they find sitting on a shelf. They are the only ones left and appear to be spoiled, but the other woman says she will take one anyway, just in case they’re wrong.

June 14

I’m in search of bread again. Because it’s becoming harder and harder to buy fresh bread—as Venezuelans have traditionally done—I decide to look for the packaged kind. At noon, I head to a nearby grocery store. There’s no line outside. Hmm. When I get inside, I see why. There’s not much on the shelves. And there’s no sign of bread anywhere. “The bread arrived early, señora,” says a middle-aged store clerk. “It’s all gone.”

Later on, I swing by a shopping center to pay my electric bill. (I’d pay on-line at home but my Internet service, like just about everyone’s in Caracas, has been balky for months.) The workers at the state-run utility are on strike. There’s no one around to receive my payment. “It’s just today, señora,” a young woman tells me. “You can come back tomorrow and pay.”

I walk over to the supermarket next door. Top on my list now are vegetables and meat. I find the vegetables—potatoes, onions, plantains—but there’s no meat. And I pay about twice as much as I had just five months earlier. As I head out, something catches my eye. There’s one counter over by the exit, far apart from all the others. Behind it, several of the scarcer products in the city are on display, things like tuna fish, sugar and insecticide. The store’s taking no chances with its precious stash: Buyers are instructed to put up the money before touching the merchandise.

lines in Venezuela store
Store shelves that are well-stocked, like those in this bakery near Zerpa’s house, are typically full of non-essential items set at sky-high prices.

June 15

On my way to work, I drive by the local supermarket to see if the line is manageable enough to sneak in and look around. It’s not. What’s unusual on this morning, though, is that the municipal police officers who normally keep order on the line order aren’t there. Instead, heavily-armed officers from the National Guard’s anti-kidnapping unit are on the scene. That seems a bit over the top. I keep on driving, opting to head back to the mall to try to pay my electric bill. Again, no luck. The strike is over, I’m told, but the workers only arrive at noon.

Harina P.A.N. corn flour
Harina P.A.N., the corn flour Venezuelans use to make arepas, on Zerpa’s kitchen table.

June 17

Big score. Isaac, through the friend of a friend he works with at an ad-production company, got his hands on 5 kilos of corn flour. This is huge. Flour is the main ingredient in arepas, the flat, round corn bread that’s the most important staple in the Venezuelan diet. Isaac paid dearly: 1,500 bolivars per kilo. That’s eight times more than the regulated price. It was worth it, though. Our supply was really running low. Replenished now, we can use some of it as a bartering tool with friends and family. (Two kilos, for instance, would go to my sister-in-law Raquel days later in exchange for the powdered milk she used to pass on to us.)

Venezuela line
At a supermarket near her neighborhood, the line is so long Zerpa doesn’t bother waiting.

June 25

I head out early to a farmers’ market near my house. Before dawn each Saturday, the farmers truck in their produce from the surrounding mountains. Everything’s sold at free-market prices. This is, technically speaking, illegal but essentially goes unenforced nowadays. Shopping here, at these prices, is a luxury I know that millions of Venezuelans can’t afford. I feel very fortunate in that sense. An additional perk is that the farmers actually accept debit cards. With inflation spiraling out of control—private forecasts for 2016 range anywhere from 200 percent to 1,500 percent—paying with cash requires toting around a huge stack of bills. Not only is this cumbersome, but in a country as crime-ridden as Venezuela, home to the world’s third-highest homicide rate, it is extremely dangerous.

After spending an hour picking out fruit, vegetables and meat, I get in line to pay. It starts raining, lightly at first, then it pours. This is a problem. The Internet system that links the debit-card scanner to the banking sector crashes. Years of under-investment have compromised the system’s reliability. A half-hour goes by. There are now 30 of us waiting to pay. Some start grumbling about: the checkout clerk (she’s lazy), the banks (they’re awful), and the country overall (this place is just one endless line). A couple of elderly men give up. They put down their grocery bags and walk off. A few minutes later, I join them.

shopping in Venezuela
At another supermarket, Zerpa inspects the special station it has for shortage products sold at high prices, like tuna fish.

July 1

It’s 7 p.m. I need to load my kids in the car and swing by the local bakery. I’m dreading it, to be honest. These streets are especially dangerous after dark, something I was acutely reminded of the day before when a woman was kidnapped just a few feet from the bakery. Police officers happened to be nearby and a shootout immediately erupted. A neighbor of mine, Franco, found himself trapped in the bakery with his 13-year-old son. They had to crawl through the kitchen to safety as the bullets flew. When it was over, the victim was free, one of the kidnappers was dead and three others were on the lam. I heard all about it that night on my Whatsapp neighborhood crime chat. (My friends and I are Whatsapp addicts; most importantly, it’s our main forum for sharing real-time tips on where hard-to-find items are available across the city.)

So as I enter the bakery, my heart’s racing a bit. Inside, everything seems normal, though. Life goes on. There’s a long line of people waiting for bread and another of people waiting to pay. Customers are leisurely sipping coffee and eating pizza. And the lines, to my surprise, move quickly. I collect two thin loaves of bread (the maximum allowed), some ham, cheese and a couple little Venezuelan sweets for my kids and scurry home. A small victory.

grocery shopping in Venezuela
Zerpa exits a store with her purchases.

July 7

Thursday. My day of the week to buy staples. I head over to the local supermarket just after 10 a.m. Sixty people or so are waiting outside. They’ve come from all over the city, especially the poorer neighborhoods where food is scarcest, to stand in line. No one knows anything: what time the regulated goods will be put up for sale; which items, if any, will be offered; nothing. They just wait, doggedly, under the blistering Caribbean sun.

“This is the line of hope,” one woman says to me. “We are hoping they have something to sell us.” Nice. A little bit of gallows humor. I laugh. A couple hours later, though, with the line still at a standstill, I’m out of hope. I abandon my spot and walk away.

Venezuela life
Zerpa checks a pantry where she stores products for her family such as tuna, snacks and powdered milk.