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World News

Hunger on the rise in Mexico as recession bites

SAN MARTIN TEXMELUCAN, Mexico (Reuters) - More Mexicans are going hungry because of a severe recession that threatens to increase malnutrition and reduce gains in the fight against poverty since the mid-1990s.

Esperanza Gonzalez cooks at her home in San Martin Texmelucan in Mexico's state of Puebla August 19, 2009. REUTERS/Daniel Aguilar

Maria Villalva’s kitchen went bare after she lost her job as a seamstress four months ago. Now she has stopped buying meat and risks getting sick by drinking from the tap because she can no longer afford bottled water.

“We eat what we can get. Beans, tortillas, some noodles,” said Villalva, 45, after applying for jobs in an industrial park in San Martin Texmelucan, a town in south-central Mexico.

Having burned through her savings, she depends on the little money her son makes selling candy on the highway.

Between 1 million and 2 million Mexicans will slip so deep into poverty this year that they will struggle to eat enough, said Rodolfo de la Torre, who heads poverty research in Mexico for the United Nations.

Malnutrition tends to lag a fall in income by months or even years. “Then you start to see less shine in people’s hair, and underweight children,” said De la Torre.

Mexico, Latin America’s 2nd largest economy, has been blighted by poverty for centuries, especially in rural areas.

Strong economic growth in the late 1990s and government aid helped put more food on the tables of the poorest Mexicans, but the situation deteriorated sharply a few years ago when food prices surged and economic growth slowed.

Now, with a plunge in factory output pushing Mexico into its worst recession since the 1930s, urban residents increasingly are slipping into misery.

In San Martin Texmelucan, which attracted dozens of new factories after Mexico signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with the United States and Canada in 1994, the Catholic Church began distributing boxes of food this month to the poorest families.

Mexico City’s local government started opening soup kitchens a few months ago and now runs 160 of them.

TROUBLE EATING

Aid workers say they have seen evidence of a recent increase in hunger among those going to food banks big larger cities, such as Guadalajara and Monterrey.

“People in good clothes who are having trouble eating are showing up,” said Luciano Aimar, who heads Mexico’s national association of food banks.

NAFTA spurred a boom in manufacturing jobs in Mexico, as new factories began producing electronics, appliances, clothes and other goods for export to the United States.

But the deep U.S. recession has dried up demand for Mexican imports. Factories south of the border have responded by laying off hundreds of thousands of workers during the last year.

Mexico’s economy shrank 10.3 percent from April to June of 2009, compared to the same period in the previous year, its biggest quarterly contraction on record.

Government poverty researchers estimate Mexicans living in cities must earn about $80 a month to eat enough, while those in the countryside need about $60. About 20 million Mexicans were below these cut-off levels in 2008.

Adding to the woes of those living on the cusp of hunger is the prospect of having to pay more for food. A drought in Mexico has destroyed crops of corn, a key staple, and killed livestock, threatening to push prices up.

“We can’t eat as much anymore,” said Silverio Garcia, while waiting outside a textile plant in San Martin Texmelucan, where he was seeking work. Garcia lost his job a few months ago, and he and his wife are surviving on about $160 a month.

Despite the pain, the current recession pales in comparison to the impact of the mid-1990s financial meltdown in Mexico, also known as the Tequila Crisis. Some 35 million struggled to get enough to eat in 1996.

Researchers say better government welfare programs and a decade of financial stability have helped to insulate many.

Reporting by Jason Lange; editing by Paul Simao

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