By Jim Loney
PORT-AU-PRINCE, April 10 (Reuters) - Elta Petithomme has been scouring the Haitian capital's garbage-strewn main market street for hours, searching for something to feed her four young children. Today, pickings are slim.
Yesterday she sold a cellphone for 50 gourdes, the equivalent of about $1.30, enough to buy some bread, sugar and fried plantains. That's all the children, all under the age of 6, had to eat for the day.
"Some days neighbors will cook and give us some food, as little as it is. Every day is like this," said Petithomme, neatly dressed in a white T-shirt and denim skirt. "I'm not working. I am hungry. But today, I haven't found anything for us to eat."
Petithomme and hundreds of other Haitians flooded the streets of the capital on Thursday after two days of sometimes violent protests against skyrocketing food prices that have Haitians complaining of rising hunger and talking about death by starvation.
"In the last two months, all the prices have doubled or tripled," Oxfam official Yolette Etienne said.
High fuel prices, which have made transportation more expensive, rising demand in Asia, the use of farmland and crops for biofuels, a long drought in Australia and speculation on futures markets have combined to push up food prices worldwide.
The poorest country in the Americas, Haiti is one of three countries in the world that share the largest daily caloric deficit -- 460 calories per day below the daily requirement of 2,100 calories per day, according to the World Food Program.
RICE AND SUGAR RISING
At the Canape Vert Market, where oranges, onions, peppers and rolls of toilet paper are neatly stacked, clouds of flies infest piles of pork and sausages, and stray dogs work furiously against their fleas, vendors seemed to have plenty of supplies, but there were few buyers.
Marie France Presky has been selling staples for 10 years. Her cost for a 55-pound (25-kg) bag of rice has climbed from 530 gourdes ($13.90) to 1,075 gourdes ($28.20) since January.
The same is true for her other necessities: sugar jumped from 1,200 gourdes ($31.50) to 1,700 gourdes ($44.70) for a 110-pound (50 kg) bag; flour from about 1,200 ($31.50) to about 2,000 gourdes ($53.00) for a similar amount.
"The people, they buy tiny amounts now. I am hardly making any profit at all," she said, adding with a broad smile: "I haven't eaten today and you are making me talk too much. I don't have the energy."
Most gas stations were closed on Thursday and some were boarded up against vandals and looters. A worker at one service station said the price of diesel had risen from 134 gourdes ($3.50) to 152 gourdes ($4.00) per gallon (3.8 liters) in 15 days.
It is common for Haitians to scrape by with money from relatives abroad. Remittances are nearly one-quarter of Haiti's GDP and more than double the total of exports, according to World Bank figures.
Often, family and friends in the Caribbean nation help each other out.
"My parents in the provinces sometimes send us some food," said Pierre Rolin, a 35-year-old who lives with his three younger brothers in Port-au-Prince. He was scouting job opportunities Thursday on Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the downtown market street.
"I am not working. I am going around trying to find what I can to survive. Even if I fix something for someone, usually they can't pay, so there is no way to feed my family," he said.
On Wednesday, he said, he managed to buy a bag with four pieces of bread for 30 gourdes ($0.80). "The price has not gone up, but the bread is not even half the size it was before."
International agencies say most Haitians live on less than $2 per day.
"This is a situation of complete desperation," Oxfam's Etienne said. "At this stage, they are hungry. But without strong action, this could become starvation." (Additional reporting by Joseph Guyler Delva; Editing by Tom Brown)
(For more stories on global food price increases, please see here)