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The proud Pakistani tradition of feeding the hungry is strained as food prices soar

A little girl clutches a small bag of rice — leftovers from a meal she was served at a free-food hall at a sprawling shrine to the Sufi saint Bari Imam on the outskirts of Pakistani capital Islamabad. Many visitors to the shrine scoop up the free meal they are given into plastic bags to feed children at home.
Diaa Hadid/NPR
A little girl clutches a small bag of rice — leftovers from a meal she was served at a free-food hall at a sprawling shrine to the Sufi saint Bari Imam on the outskirts of Pakistani capital Islamabad. Many visitors to the shrine scoop up the free meal they are given into plastic bags to feed children at home.

FAISALABAD, Pakistan – A dervish in a scarlet whirling skirt, bells strapped to his chest, raises his fist to salute a Sufi saint buried in a soaring shrine on the outskirts of the capital Islamabad.

The dervish, Ghulam Mohammad says he loves the saint, Bari Imam, because he comforted the afflicted. Muhammad wishes more people would do the same. Lately, all he sees in his travels from shrine to shrine across the length of Pakistan are poor and hungry people.

Since the pandemic, Pakistan has been battered by calamities that have pushed up the price of food and fuel: Russia's invasion of Ukraine and two events made more extreme by climate change: a spring heatwave that shriveled harvests, then summer floods that drowned them. Now there's an economic crisis so dire, the country risks default.

Inflation reached nearly 25% last year, but the figure conceals dramatic variations. In poorer rural areas, prices of food rose even higher.

Now, the World Food Programme expects that 5.1 million people are likely to be a step away from famine-levels of hunger by the end of March – an increase of 1.1 million people from the previous quarter. "That number is frightening," says Chris Kaye, the Pakistan country director of the WFP.

And it has put a proud Pakistani tradition of feeding the hungry under strain just when it is needed the most.

In one hall at the Bari Imam shrine complex, a cook dishes up plates of greasy rice. A waitress slaps them down on benches where women and girls have gathered. One woman fights with the waitress, demanding more rice.

Women sit in a gender-segregated hall, waiting to be served free food cooked in open-air stalls surrounding the shrine to the Sufi saint Bari Imam. Men and women hoping for the saint's blessings pay cooks to prepare the food for hungry shrine visitors.
/ Diaa Hadid/NPR
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Diaa Hadid/NPR
Women sit in a gender-segregated hall, waiting to be served free food cooked in open-air stalls surrounding the shrine to the Sufi saint Bari Imam. Men and women hoping for the saint's blessings pay cooks to prepare the food for hungry shrine visitors.

Salima-Bibi, 52, hovers at the hall entrance, hoping the waitress will forget she's already been served once. She clutches a plastic bag in one hand, which she hopes to fill with free rice for her four children. Salima-Bibi, who does not have a family name like many Pakistanis, says she can't afford to bring her kids because bus rides are now too expensive.

The meal she's already received is stuffed in a different plastic bag tucked under her draping headscarf. "I haven't eaten any of it," Salima-Bibi says. "I'm a mother. How can I eat without my kids?"

Salima-Bibi is not alone.

Steaming cauldrons of free food are a growing sight in Pakistan, where economic hardships have made it difficult for many to afford food. Above: A cook stirs a pot in the industrial kitchen on the ground floor of the Pakistani charity Saylani. A branch of the charity in the city of Faisalabad provides lunch to some 20,000 people each day.
/ Diaa Hadid/NPR
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Diaa Hadid/NPR
Steaming cauldrons of free food are a growing sight in Pakistan, where economic hardships have made it difficult for many to afford food. Above: A cook stirs a pot in the industrial kitchen on the ground floor of the Pakistani charity Saylani. A branch of the charity in the city of Faisalabad provides lunch to some 20,000 people each day.

At the feeding halls at the Bari Imam shrine, cooks at open-air stalls prepare enormous cauldrons of food. They have to pay for the food themselves and rely on donations to cover their costs and their salary.

For a price, the cooks will serve up a plate of meaty stew or a plainer meal, like buttery rice.

But cooks tell NPR that they're receiving fewer donations because people are too hard up. Inflation means everything costs more so they're making less food.

Bilal Khan, a 28-year-old cook, says last year, he was tending to about 20 cauldrons a day, each holding about 22 pounds of food like chicken and beef stews. Now, with fewer donations, he's cut back on the number of cauldrons and they've got less food in them. Requests to prepare meat dishes for the poor are rare. "This year, people don't want to even order chickpeas with their rice," he says.

Meals of goat curry are served at a free cafeteria operated by the Pakistani charity Saylani. This cafeteria was recently opened to serve workers in the textile mills on the outskirts of the city of Faisalabad. It's one of 40 cafeterias the charity runs in Faisalabad – nearly double what they operated two years ago as the number of hungry grow.
/ Diaa Hadid/NPR
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Diaa Hadid/NPR
Meals of goat curry are served at a free cafeteria operated by the Pakistani charity Saylani. This cafeteria was recently opened to serve workers in the textile mills on the outskirts of the city of Faisalabad. It's one of 40 cafeterias the charity runs in Faisalabad – nearly double what they operated two years ago as the number of hungry grow.

Across the sweeping shrine, 13-year-old Sheba chases her friends down a marble-paved courtyard. She's from a nearby crowded slum, and this is where she's always come to play. Now, she comes to eat as well. Sheba says her father, a security guard, can't afford to buy lentils, – once their staple. Now it's just tea and bread at home

It's already early evening, and she says, "I haven't eaten today, not yet." She and her friends were going to eat after playing, but as she speaks, a security guard rushes over and smacks Sheba across her shoulders – and she scrams. The guard later tells NPR that he thought Sheba was trying to pickpocket fellow NPR reporter Abdul Sattar and me.

Reports of crime are growing as tentacles of hunger spread. It's even reached a prosperous area where the poor have long flocked to work: the textile mills on the fringes of Faisalabad, a city about a four hours south from the capital. There, one charity recently opened a roadside cafeteria to serve free meals to workers, like Mohammad Imran, a quality controller at a textile mill.

He sits with his back to the entrance so nobody can see him. "I came here with a heavy heart," says Imran, as he mops up a plate of curried goat with a piece of flat bread, or naan. "But I have no choice."

Men eat at a free cafeteria operated by the Pakistani charity Saylani. This cafeteria was recently opened to serve workers in the textile mills on the outskirts of the city of Faisalabad. It's one of 40 cafeterias the charity runs in Faislabad – nearly double what they operated two years ago, as the number of hungry grow.
/ Diaa Hadid/NPR
/
Diaa Hadid/NPR
Men eat at a free cafeteria operated by the Pakistani charity Saylani. This cafeteria was recently opened to serve workers in the textile mills on the outskirts of the city of Faisalabad. It's one of 40 cafeterias the charity runs in Faislabad – nearly double what they operated two years ago, as the number of hungry grow.

About six months ago, Imran says the price of wheat, oil and vegetables doubled in his village. His family cut down on food, but even so, his monthly wage of $115 no longer stretched to the end of the month. He began sleeping at the mill on weekdays after the price of bus ticket home doubled to 80 cents.

It got so bad, Imran pulled his daughter out of the ninth grade because couldn't pay her $20 school fee. "My daughter had such a promising future. If there was any hope at all that I could pay her fees I'd send her back, but there's no hope."

Imran says this cafeteria is full of men like him.

Workers at the Pakistani charity Saylani load freshly-cooked flat bread, or naan, into an open-backed jeep. The food will be distributed to 40 free cafeterias run by the charity in the city of Faisalabad. It's a place considered prosperous by Pakistani standards, but the charity says workers are going hungry because soaring inflation means they can't afford food.
/ Diaa Hadid/NPR
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Diaa Hadid/NPR
Workers at the Pakistani charity Saylani load freshly-cooked flat bread, or naan, into an open-backed jeep. The food will be distributed to 40 free cafeterias run by the charity in the city of Faisalabad. It's a place considered prosperous by Pakistani standards, but the charity says workers are going hungry because soaring inflation means they can't afford food.

It's run by a charity called Saylani, which operates an industrial kitchen to meet demand. Bakers slap dough into thousands of pieces of flat bread. Butchers skin freshly slaughtered goats and chop them up, ready to be cooked in pots the size of bathtubs by men holding stirring spoons the size of shovels. Vats of prepared food are pushed into open-backed jeeps.

The drivers zoom off to distribute lunch to 40 cafeterias that feed around 20,000 people each day. Irfan Malik, a senior administrator, says just two years ago, the charity ran 26 cafeterias in town.

Already, Malik says the charity, which is funded through local donations, is making trims to keep up with demand as inflation climbs. They now add potatoes to once-meat only dishes. They're building wood-fire bread ovens to replace those run on natural gas, which is now too expensive. They've limited serving times in free cafeterias so people can't come for seconds.

And his staff expect the number of people needing food to double this year. That's just one charity in one relatively prosperous city.

A worker at the Pakistani charity Saylani supervises the loading of vats of freshly cooked food into an open-backed jeep. The food will be distributed to 40 free cafeterias run by the charity in the city of Faisalabad.
/ Diaa Hadid/NPR
/
Diaa Hadid/NPR
A worker at the Pakistani charity Saylani supervises the loading of vats of freshly cooked food into an open-backed jeep. The food will be distributed to 40 free cafeterias run by the charity in the city of Faisalabad.

That's partly because the government in February raised taxes and trimmed subsidies on fuel and electricity as part of negotiations with the International Monetary Fund to resume a stalled bailout.

Those moves have already triggered more price hikes locally and are expected to push inflation up by more than 30% this year. The problem is, without a bailout, Pakistan could spiral into chaos.

Back in Faisalabad, 45-year-old Ghulam Nabi keeps an eye on cotton looms in a one-room factory. He's gaunt. His cheekbones protrude. His arms are bony.

He's piling up debt to buy food for his family and now owes $70 – his monthly wage – at the local shop. But somehow, Ghulam Nabi says, he is managing. "I work," he says, "I don't need free food."

At least for now.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.
Abdul Sattar