Shame on me for waiting too long. After a few weeks, shoppers had gutted the place almost completely. Discounted meat was the first to go. Then soda. By the time I got there, there wasn’t anything on the shelves that I typically buy. And I wasn’t going to buy cans of clam juice just because they were 50 percent off.
You never really think about how much variety there is in a typical supermarket until that variety isn’t there anymore.
All that came back to mind as I was reading about Venezuela.
Since the death of Venezuelan socialist leader Hugo Chavez in March, conditions in the South American country have gone from “bad” to “yep, still bad.”
The media recently have been reporting food shortages – staples such as milk, butter, coffee, sugar, corn meal and cooking oil.
Now the Catholic Church in Venezuela has told the BBC that basic products are becoming so scarce that the country’s “only wine maker” has stopped selling wine to the church because it’s becoming costly to import items to make the wine. And since nobody grows wheat in Venezuela anymore – it’s all imported; more about that in a minute – there’s also a shortage of consecrated communion wafers.
When Catholic churches in a South American country don’t have enough bread and wine to celebrate Mass, you know the shortage problem is huge.
How truly bad has it gotten? You know how irritated you get when you’re in the bathroom and you run out of toilet paper? Imagine the anger of an entire country running out of toilet paper. The government has promised to import 50 million rolls to replenish its supply.
Venezuela’s current regime has blamed its political opposition for the toilet paper shortage – a political opposition, presumably, committed to a very high-fiber diet.
BBC Mundo correspondent Abraham Zamorano says many Venezuelans “are wondering why this is happening to a self-proclaimed rich country with the largest proven oil reserves in the world.”
After living under Chavez’s bent brand of socialism, they’re really wondering why?
Venezuela uses price controls to make sure its poorest citizens have access to basic goods – a theory that sounds good until too many Venezuelans find themselves seated eye-to-eye with empty toilet paper spindles.
“State-controlled prices – prices that are set below market-clearing price – always result in shortages. The shortage problem will only get worse, as it did over the years in the Soviet Union,” Steve Hanke, a professor of economics at Johns Hopkins University, told Britain’s Guardian newspaper.
So now Venezuelans too often have to visit several stores to complete the list for just one typical shopping trip.
Chavez also put tight controls on foreign currency in an effort to stop the predictable capitalist flight from the country. Instead, that move devalued Venezuelan currency, spurring even more economic turmoil.
Venezuela also doesn’t grow much of anything anymore. The nation’s economic engine is pretty much oil, oil, oil. That’s why a country with a 1,700-mile coastline and 75 million acres of fertile land is importing fish and wheat. It has to import 70 percent of its food.
By comparison, America imports only 15 percent. That’s why – for now, at least – the only time you see sparse supermarket shelves is when a supermarket is shutting down. Or, in Georgia, when there’s a threat of an inch of snow, and we all panic by inexplicably hoarding bread and milk.
And toilet paper.
A talk about empty shelves should include something about our local food banks. One of the best initiatives Augusta’s Golden Harvest Food Bank has is its BackPack program. During the school year, volunteers slip nutritious packaged food into the backpacks of about 2,500 children at risk of not having enough to eat over the weekend before returning to school each Monday. It works wonderfully.
But here’s the thing: School’s out now. And so are kids’ access to school meals. That makes summer a tough time for food banks as more kids and their parents turn to them for assistance.
So the next time you’re walking the aisles between America’s full supermarket shelves, think about buying a bit extra to donate to Golden Harvest – (706) 736-1199 – or Columbia County Cares, which is under the Golden Harvest umbrella – (706) 541-2834.
I don’t know if they accept toilet paper. And shipping to Venezuela probably costs extra.