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Counting the Beans: The true cost of a plate of food around the world

Second edition of the World Food Programme (WFP)'s Counting the Beans index shows food becoming ever less affordable in countries in conflict or subject to political instability.
, World Food Programme

How much would you expect to pay for the most basic plate of food? The kind of thing you might whip up at home — nothing fancy, just enough to fill you up and meet a third of today's calorie needs. A soup, maybe, or a simple stew — some beans or lentils, a handful of rice or bread or corn, a dash of tomato sauce?

London? Paris? Tokyo? Juba (South Sudan)? Where would you pay US$ 348 relative price for a simple bowl of bean soup? Find out here

In the rich Global North — say, in New York State, USA — such a meal would cost almost nothing to make: 0.6 percent of the average daily income, or US$1.20. In parts of the developing world, by contrast, food affordability can shrink to the point of absurdity: in South Sudan, a country born out of war and disintegrating into more war, the meal-to-income ratio is 300 times that of industrialized countries. It is, in other words, as if a New Yorker had to pay nearly US$ 350 for the privilege of cooking and eating that plate of food.

How do people in South Sudan afford it?

They don't.

It's why we — the World Food Programme (WFP) and other humanitarian partners — are there. Every day, in South Sudan and in many other countries, we keep people alive. We shouldn't be: hunger is a moral scandal and a human rights violation. That is still occurs defies both reason and decency. And still, 821 million people go hungry.

Lack of access to food, and the costliness of it, have many causes: climate extremes, natural disasters, weak markets or bad governance. But one overriding cause stands out: conflict. At WFP, we've long known that hunger and war are tragically symbiotic. Which makes it that much harder to eradicate the one without ending the other.

In South Sudan, WFP provides food and nutrition assistance to 4.8 million people every month. Photo: WFP/Gabriela Vivacqua

If you scroll through the list of countries in the index — there are 52 nations in this second edition of our index, 19 more than in the first — you will see that many have seen food affordability improve since 2017. But others, including South Sudan, have deteriorated. Almost invariably, these are nations where peace has been (further) eroded by violence, insecurity or political tension.

So pick a country to find out how much a plate of food would set you back in purchasing power equivalence, and why that is so. But as you pore through the numbers, please remember one thing: in this day and age, you shouldn't be reading this sort of thing at all.

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