A month of iftar meals now costs 2.5 times the minimum wage, an AUB study finds

https://today.lorientlejour.com-L’Orient Today / By Abby Sewell

According to the study, the cost of preparing a typical iftar meal for a family of five is now LL60,243. (Credit: AFP)

BEIRUT — With Tuesday marking the first day of Ramadan, many families in Lebanon will be breaking their fast with less this year.

Thanks to rapid inflation in food prices and stagnant wages amid Lebanon’s currency crisis, the cost of a full month’s worth of iftar meals for a family of five is now 2.5 times the minimum wage of LL675,000, according to an analysis by the Lebanon Crisis Observatory, a research initiative of the American University of Beirut launched in 2020.

The cost to prepare a typical meal consisting of lentil soup, fattoush salad, a main dish of rice and chicken, and a side of laban as well as a single date for each family member has reached LL60,243, according to the group’s analysis.

Without the dates and laban, the cost is LL54,435, representing a 268 percent increase from the cost of preparing the same meal in 2018.

A full month of such meals comes to LL1.8 million — or LL1.6 million without the dates and laban — compared to LL443,931 in 2018, the researchers found. The index does not include the cost of extras like drinks and sweets.

Nasser Yassin, an associate professor of policy and planning at AUB who heads up the observatory, said the research team had gotten the idea from the yearly “fattoush index” put out by the Ministry of Economy and Trade, which tracks the cost of preparing the ubiquitous salad, and decided to expand it to cover a full iftar meal. The observatory will track the prices weekly throughout Ramadan, he said.

The researchers took their recipes from the popular cookbook Alef Baa Al Tabkh (The ABCs of Cooking), Yassin said, and calculated the ingredient quantities with input from a team member who had studied nutrition.

They used prices from the COOP supermarket chain, which Yassin said they had chosen because it represents a midrange market, and compared them to prices for the same ingredients as reported by the Economy Ministry in previous years.

The ministry does not track date and laban prices, and its reported prices for 2021 were slightly lower than the COOP prices, coming to an average cost of LL47,768 per iftar or LL1.4 million for the month — still, a more than 200 percent increase from the cost in 2018.

While the cost of all ingredients increased, Yassin said he was particularly struck by the increase in the cost of olive oil, which, despite the fact that it is locally produced, has increased in price by about 430 percent since 2018, according to the team’s numbers. Chicken was also a major driver of the increased cost, with the price of 1.5 kilograms having risen from LL8,725 in 2018 to around LL30,000 today.

How are people coping?

“People will cut quantities or quality, most likely,” Yassin said. “They will change some of the items they used to have to a lesser quality, or maybe to less diversification of their diet, so they will go more into carbohydrates than proteins or vegetables.”

Indeed, Lebanese households interviewed by L’Orient Today about their buying habits since the crisis said they had largely replaced former staples like meat, chicken and cheese with cheaper ones like beans and rice.

Yassin said many Lebanese families are now facing circumstances similar to those of refugees, among whom poverty rates were high even before the economic crisis. Some 89 percent of refugee families in Lebanon are now living in extreme poverty, while more than half of Lebanese families are estimated to be below the poverty line.

“If you look at the coping strategies of refugees in Lebanon, it will give you an idea of what some Lebanese families are going to do, which is they cut the number of meals per day — not related purely to Ramadan, but in normal times — and they will work around the quality of the food they have, look for cheaper alternatives or more carbs, less protein,” he said.

During Ramadan, this year as in previous years, Yassin said many struggling families will rely on charity provided by religious organizations, community groups and NGOs, as well as on remittances sent by family members abroad.

But the crisis also offers an opportunity for political parties to strengthen their patronage networks by providing Ramadan aid, Yassin noted.

“The political parties have their own networks helping and supporting their followers,” he said. And while prices have skyrocketed for those getting their income in Lebanese lira, for political groups with access to dollars, he added, the cost of patronage is “even cheaper than before, unfortunately.”



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