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Food insecurity persists despite the resumption of economic activities

  • Food Security Outlook Update
  • Guatemala
  • August 2020
Food insecurity persists despite the resumption of economic activities

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  • Key Messages
  • Key Messages
    • The current infection situation means that major urban centers, and the metropolitan area in particular, are expected to remain on high alert until the end of the year, with restricted capacity on transport and in restaurants and shops, and continuing distancing and biosecurity measures. This will limit income generation. Public transport has not been resumed, leading to the use of alternative and more expensive transport.

    • Domestic Primera harvests of basic grains will begin to flow into the markets at the end of August and will help reduce maize and bean prices. However, poorer households will continue to experience an impact on the quality and quantity of food consumed due to lower incomes and higher prices for everyday protein- and vitamin-rich foods, such as meat, eggs and vegetables.

    • Households continue to adapt their diets and use negative coping strategies to ensure they have food. While they did not receive the scheduled food assistance in July, the continuation of this program during August and September will allow most households to secure their food (IPC Phase 1!), while households in the dry corridor will experience Stressed food insecurity (IPC Phase 2!).

    • The government’s Bono Familia (Family Bonus) Program ends in October. Despite the start of the peak season for temporary employment, the rapid use of income and continued reliance on negative coping strategies will cause households to relapse into Stressed (IPC Phase 2) or Crisis (IPC Phase 3) food insecurity until January 2021.


    The recent economic reopening and the lifting of restrictions on people’s movement at the national level has resulted in a partial recovery of income sources and improved market access for both the purchase and sale of products. However, public transport that should have already partially resumed has not yet done so due to the cost adjustments needed to offset reduced passenger capacity on all journeys. This has forced those who have returned to work to continue to rely on expensive private transport.

    After five months of restrictions marked by declining incomes and rising food prices, there has been an impact on the food security of both rural and urban poor and very poor households. They have partly mitigated this impact through the use of coping strategies that put their livelihoods at risk. The government implemented a number of measures including cash transfers and food assistance, in addition to support for companies and businesses. Programs such as the Family Bonus and the Food Assistance Program were designed to reach a large part of the population and thus mitigate the impact of COVID-19. However, these programs have faced various obstacles that have delayed implementation, meaning that the second instalment of the Family Bonus scheduled for July has not yet been paid. According to the Ministry of Social Development (MIDES), instalments will resume at the end of August.

    Evolution of the pandemic and economic reopening. The national COVID-19 control strategy was published in June and the COVID-19 alert dashboard, which outlines the process of economic reopening, came into force on 27 July. The strategy uses four different color phases (red, amber, yellow and green) to classify the country’s 340 municipalities according to the number of infections in the previous 15 days. Red signals maximum alert, declared when there are more than 55 infections per 100,000 inhabitants or over 20 percent of test results are positive. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the municipality of Guatemala has had the highest infection rate, with the first wave peaking in late June. The government also reports a decrease in hospital bed occupancy due to COVID-19. No municipality is currently classified as on green alert, the “new normal”. As in most Latin American countries, the infection curve is steadily increasing, and the authorities expect the second wave of cases to begin in the coming weeks following the reopening in late July.

    Most major urban centers have begun the process of reopening. All municipalities in the departments of Guatemala, Sacatepéquez, Izabal and El Progreso are on red alert, while Jalapa is the only department with no municipality reported at that level. As of 20 August, 169 municipalities are on red alert (49.7 percent), 100 municipalities on amber alert (29.4 percent) and 71 municipalities on yellow alert (20.88 percent). In rural areas, fewer cases have been reported and many of them are on yellow alert. However, until the number of tests is increased, the level of infection is difficult to gauge.

    The COVID-19 alert dashboard guides the operation of different economic activities. Accordingly, local markets on red and amber alert have a 1.5 meter distance restriction, and supermarkets and convenience stores restrict capacity to one person per 4 m2. In shopping centers, occupancy in premises is restricted to 1 person per 10m2 and groups of more than 10 people and the use of common areas are not allowed, although these measures are not always observed. Industries, including public and private workplaces, are restricted to 1 person per 4m2. In agriculture a 1.5 meter interpersonal distance must be maintained, while gatherings for transport, group activities and payment are restricted to fewer than 10 people. Industries, like public and private workplaces, are restricted to 1 person per 4m2. In agriculture a distance of 1.5 meters between people must be maintained, while gatherings for transport, group activities and payment are restricted to fewer than 10 people. Restaurants on red alert can operate at 25 percent of their capacity inside and 50 percent outside, while those on amber alert are allowed 50 percent capacity inside and 75 percent outside. Although the reopening phase allows for public transport in red and amber alert phases to operate at 50 percent capacity, at 75 percent in yellow phases and 100 percent in green phases, services have not yet resumed in either the capital or most of the rest of the country. At present, only extra-urban transport is in partial operation. This situation is the result of adjustments to ticket costs due to the reduced number of passengers and the incorporation of biosecurity measures. Borders remain closed to people and the airport has rescheduled its tentative opening for 1 September.

    Primera Crop Development. At the national level, rains have favored Primera maize and bean crops, which are at different stages of development. According to the Planning Directorate of the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Food (DIPLAN/MAGA) crop monitoring system, by the end of July maize crops on the south coast were flowering or fruiting, as were those in the north and certain areas in the east; while in the western highlands, which has a longer development cycle, they are still in growth stage 2. In the east, bean crops are in their final stages of development and are expected to be harvested from August onwards. Some areas of Jutiapa started harvesting in mid-August, and these crops have started to flow into the local and regional market.

    Food availability and access to markets. The import and circulation of food products remains stable. Markets are supplied by small volumes of stored national and Mexican grain that covers domestic demand. The extension of hours of movement and opening times of markets and supermarkets has improved access to markets, particularly in urban centers.

    Basic grain prices. The prices of basic grains have remained above the five-year average and above 2019 levels. However, since the first fortnight of August there has been a slight reduction due to the onset of the eastern harvests. In July the price of white maize was GTQ 150.13 per quintal, with very little variation from the previous month (GTQ 153.18) or last year (GTQ 157.50); however, there is a variation of almost 5 percent compared to the five-year average. In contrast, black beans have exhibited atypical upward behavior since the peak in March as a result of restrictions imposed by the pandemic, and subsequent speculation and stockpiling. In July the price dropped approximately 5 percent (GTQ 510.63 per quintal) as new crops from the east entered the market, but the price remains high: 44.5 percent higher than last year and 34.9 percent above the five-year average. Retail prices exhibit the same behavior, with prices ranging from GTQ 5.30 to GTQ 5.90 per pound for beans, and GTQ 1.37 to GTQ 1.60 per pound for white maize. According to FAO data, producer prices in rural areas have behaved similarly: in July white maize was sold at GTQ 155.00 per quintal, and black beans at GTQ 560.00 per quintal, figures that have not changed compared to the previous month but which are above the average.

    Cost of the basic basket and consumer price index. The cost of the basic basket continues to increase, reaching GTQ 3,675.16 in July. The greatest fluctuations are for rice, beef and pork, milk powder, tomatoes and beans. The consumer price index has also risen significantly since May. The increase in July was driven in particular by the transport sector, followed by food, restaurants and health. Since the announcement of restrictions in March, the public transport service has been suspended. However, the operation of essential services during the period of economic shutdown forced many people to seek alternative transport, usually at higher prices. According to a survey by the Fundación para el Desarrollo de Guatemala [Guatemalan Development Foundation – FUNDESA] (June 2020), 66 percent of people in Guatemala City use public transport, spending an average of GTQ 10.00 per day to travel to their place of employment. Under lockdown, this cost increased to GTQ 40 per day, since the lack of public transport has forced people to use private transport at much higher prices. Although restrictions have been partially lifted, and increasing public transport capacity to 50 percent has been authorized, by the end of August services had not resumed due to disagreements over costs and government support to subsidize part of the losses due to reduced passenger numbers. The situation is similar in rural areas since, so far, only extra-urban transport has resumed on a regular basis with reduced capacity, and at a cost that has doubled or tripled; intra-municipal transport, particularly from communities to municipal capitals, has not fully resumed.

    Income. The lifting of restrictions have made it possible to reopen shops and services, albeit only partially due to distancing measures that make it necessary to reduce customer numbers and service capacity. In some cases this has meant cutting working hours, wages, or staff to maintain business operations. The monthly economic activity index published by the Bank of Guatemala shows a slight recovery from -11.3 percent in May to -8.6 percent in June, with the accommodation, food, personal services, transport, teaching, sport and leisure sectors, which have suffered the most from restrictions imposed since March, continuing to operate at a significantly reduced level. Similarly, there are businesses in the informal economy and micro and small businesses that were unable to cope with the months of restrictions and that will not be able to re-establish themselves in the short term. The extension of hours and ease of movement, while not yet restoring incomes to pre-pandemic levels, has benefited informal activity, particularly in urban areas.

    Remittances. Since May there has been a recovery in remittances. According to the Bank of Guatemala, a record US$ 1.079 billion in family remittances was recorded in July. Approximately 6 million people benefit directly from remittances from the United States. According to experts, the recovery in remittances can be explained by migrants sending money they had saved due to uncertainty about the evolution of the pandemic and economic activity in the United States, and because it had not been possible to send money previously since the establishments where transfers are usually made had been closed. While the country is still experiencing a crisis of infections, it has continued with reactivation. This includes agricultural activities, in which most migrants work, which have experienced the fewest interruptions.

    Food access and consumption. Rural communities far from urban centers have significantly reduced the diversity and frequency of their food consumption. This is the result of restrictions on movement, and dependence on community stores, as well as the increase in food prices since the onset of the pandemic. This is reflected in the variety of foods included in the daily diet, with a particular emphasis on reduced consumption of animal products such as eggs, chicken, and milk. This price increase continued to be marked in July, according to the detailed price report on basic basket products.

    Nutrition. As of 15 August, the Ministry of Health information system has reported 19,945 cumulative cases of acute malnutrition. Despite restrictions on movement, this is the year with the highest number of cases, 77 percent higher than last year. Interpreting this information is complicated by many variables that have affected the situation this year, such as a change of method that records errors in data collection and entry when the Ministry considers that the actual figures are lower than those in the report and the movement restrictions imposed by COVID-19 and the fear of infection that have limited access to health services, reducing the number of minors monitored. The Ministry of Health (MSPAS), supported by the Department of Food and Nutritional Security (SESAN) and NGO staff, began actively searching for acute malnutrition cases in August, starting in remote and hard-to-reach communities. In addition to detection, protocols cover the treatment and follow-up of cases. Preliminary data for this process is not yet available.

    Food assistance: Almost five months after the imposition of measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the programs designed to support families affected by the measures are at different stages of development: (i) as of 5 August, 2.6 million people were registered for the Family Bonus, but only the first disbursement, largely made in June and July, has been completed. The second disbursement has been delayed for more than two months and the third disbursement may not be for the full amount, due to the increase in the number of beneficiaries; (ii) Apoyo al Comercio Popular (Support for Informal Trade) for workers in the informal economy, is already fully implemented, reaching 200,000 beneficiaries; (iii) progress of the Programa de Apoyo Alimentario y Prevención del COVID-19 (COVID-19 Food Support and Prevention Program), aimed at 1.2 million urban and rural households,

    has been minimal, reaching 3.5 percent, or less than 40,000 households; iv) the Programa de Protección del Empleo (Employment Protection Program) is reaching 174,000 out of the expected 300,000 people; (v) the Ministry of Education school food program continues to benefit 2.4 million students, whose families are provided each month with food equivalent to the full allocation for school meals (GTQ 4 per child per day) via school boards. Among the organizations that have continued to provide food or cash payments during the pandemic while following distancing and biosecurity measures are: Project Concern International (PCI), the World Food Programme (WFP), and a consortium of NGOs consisting of COOPI, OXFAM, We World-GVC, Trocaire, Doctors of the World and Action Against Hunger (ACH).

    Current food security outcomes Poor and the poorest households, particularly those in rural areas, face difficulties in securing basic food since the restrictions imposed over the preceding months and the persistent lack of transport have made it difficult for them to travel to seek employment opportunities and access municipal markets. This situation has forced them to make adjustments to the quantity and quality of their food and to resort to the use of savings, apply for loans and credits and sell their assets to purchase essential foods such as maize and beans, whose retail prices within their community are higher. In urban areas, poor households dependent on the informal economy (domestic workers, gardeners, street food vendors) or the service sectors (restaurants, shops, personal services, cleaning or office work) have not been able to recover their traditional sources of income due to restrictions that still allow only a partial reactivation of economic activities. They also face high transport costs, due to the lack of regularization of public transport, and increased basic basket food prices. To alleviate this situation, these households have used negative coping strategies.


    The assumptions that FEWS NET used to develop the most likely food security scenario in the June 2020 report for the period have changed as follows.

    Evolution of the COVID-19 epidemic and reopening. Given the speed of infection and the low capacity of the health system, it is expected that the most important urban centers and the metropolitan area in particular will remain on high alert throughout the year with consequent restrictions that will limit income generation and increase transport costs. According to the Presidential Commission for the Prevention of COVID-19, following the reopening on 27 July, the second wave of infection would be expected to start in September, although this would not signal a return to more stringent restrictions than those set out by the COVID-19 alert dashboard.

    Remittances. Given the continued economic reopening in the United States, remittances are expected to continue performing well and to reach 2019 levels. This would enable recipient households, particularly middle-income households, to employ agricultural labor, principally for coffee harvesting, planting and Segunda harvests, and to cover customary expenses for food and other services within communities.

    Nutrition. The active government search process may lead to more cases of acute malnutrition being identified, particularly in the current context in which access to quantity and quality of food has suffered. Hospital treatment of the most severe cases could be hampered by the risks in accessing hospitals still treating cases of COVID-19 and with services under additional permanent pressure.

    Assistance. The two most wide-reaching government proposals to mitigate the economic impact on families caused by the restrictions imposed to prevent COVID-19, the Family Bonus and the COVID-19 Food Support and Prevention Program, with 2.6 million and 1.2 million beneficiary households, were delayed and not implemented in July and August as scheduled. The second payment of the Bonus is expected between September and October. The food assistance program is also expected to be regularized by the end of the year. At present, however, there is no certainty when and how it will move forward, due to the delays and logistical obstacles it has experienced.


    At the national level, basic grain crops from both the Primera and Postrera harvests, and from the one season in the western highlands, are expected to fall within the average range, with the exception of those poor households who failed to plant the customary areas and quantity due to a shortage of cash for purchasing supplies. Government restrictions to tackle COVID-19 were imposed in March and prevented farmers from traveling to generate income or to reach the plots they usually rent outside their communities. For these households, harvest outcomes will be lower than usual. Prices remain high for maize and beans and for other foods rich in animal protein and vitamins, which have become inaccessible to most households.

    October is the start of the peak season for labor demand, particularly for coffee and sugar harvesting. One of the major concerns of both producers and day laborers is the impossibility of traveling across borders, since crops in Mexico and Honduras are important sources of employment for households, particularly for border municipalities. In addition, the implementation of biosecurity protocols, including distancing measures, threatens day wages from employment, which would lead to a reduction in family income. Such income would be quickly used for credit payments, one of the coping strategies most used by households during the pandemic, and for purchasing food. The second instalment of the Family Bonus announced for the end of August, followed by the third payment September, would improve the food security of rural households (IPC Phase 1!); however, from October through January they would relapse to Stressed (IPC Phase 2). The exception will be those households located in the dry corridor in particular that were already in a state of food insecurity, exacerbated by the impact of the restrictions. By August/September thanks to the reactivation of the Family Bonus, the food security of these households could improve to Stressed (IPC Phase 2!). Once this assistance program comes to an end, they will be classified as in Crisis (IPC Phase 3), characterized by the continued use of strategies based on both the quality and quantity of food consumption, increased migration to more distant locations or more complicated jobs, and involving other household members in the search for income.

    In urban areas, the reopening of economic activities has led to an improvement in incomes and consequently in households’ access to food. However, the recovery has been partial, particularly in the informal economy and service sectors that employ more staff, and in tourism-related activities that rely chiefly on international demand. During the crisis, households resorted to using savings and applying for loans that must be paid back with the income they generate, meaning they will continue to restrict food quality and quantity. The financial assistance provided by the government would improve households’ access to food, placing them in Minimal food security (IPC Phase 1!). Due to the number of urban centers on red alert, and although the situation is expected to improve gradually with the resumption of public transport and the reduction of COVID-19 cases, the projected second wave from September or October would cause a large part of these households to enter Stressed food insecurity (IPC Phase 2) from October through January.

    Figures Los precios permanecen por arriba del promedio y del año pasado

    Figure 1

    Figura 1

    Source: FEWS NET con datos de DIPLAN-MAGA

    Los precios permanecen por arriba del promedio y del año pasado

    Figure 2

    Figura 2

    Source: FEWS NET con datos de DIPLAN-MAGA

    Las remesas han aumentado cada año y han alcanzado un record en junio de 2020

    Figure 3

    Figura 3

    Source: Elaborado por FEWS NET con información de BANGUAT, agosto 2020

    En muchos departamentos los hogares que han solicitado el bono aún no han recibido el primer desembolso

    Figure 4

    Figura 4

    Source: Elaborado por FEWS NET. Fuente: INE, XII Censo Nacional de Población y VII de …

    This Food Security Outlook Update provides an analysis of current acute food insecurity conditions and any changes to FEWS NET's latest projection of acute food insecurity outcomes in the specified geography over the next six months. Learn more here.

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