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With New Food Vouchers, Afghan Poor Get To Choose

Until now, Balqisa has rarely had the chance to choose what food she and her family would eat. They are too poor, so they ate whatever they could find. WFP food vouchers are giving her and other vulnerable Afghan families the ability to decide what to put on the table. Watch video

JALALABAD, Afghanistan – When Balqisa entered a Jalalabad food shop last month, she experienced something entirely new – being able to choose what she and her children will eat.

"I've never had money to buy food before," she said. "I usually have to go from shop to shop, begging for each piece of bread."

With three children to feed, Balqisa's only source of income is what she can beg on the streets of the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad. For food, they depended entirely on the kindness of shopkeepers, who would give whatever scraps they had to spare.

"I have no family to help me," said Balqisa, who uses only one name. Now she has become among the first to enroll in a new WFP project, receiving a monthly voucher worth 1250 Afghani, or about $25, that she can exchange for food items in selected local shops.

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For the first time, Balqisa knows her three children will not go hungry. "I'll still need to find money for the rent, but at least now we know there will be enough for us to eat,” she said. The monthly food voucher also offers Balqisa something many people take for granted -- the ability to decide what to have for dinner. With her head held high, she walks into shops as a customer, not a beggar. 

New business

Local shopkeepers are equally excited about the food vouchers, which will bring them new business. Thousands of people who once could not afford to buy food are now becoming regular customers.

WFP began distributing the first vouchers to 1,500 families in Jalalabad in February, following a successful pilot phase in Kabul.  WFP plans to expand the project to other cities later this year, supporting a planned 30,000 beneficiaries in 2011. The scheme aims to help the poorest, most vulnerable urban families, prioritizing those led by widows and the disabled. 

Nearly a third of Afghans struggle to get enough to eat. With food prices rising, the urban poor have been hit hard.

Not enough income

"One of my relatives has a job, but that income is not enough to meet our whole family's needs," said Hari Babrek, a 50-year-old blind man with a family of eight.

Day labourer Ghulam Rasool also struggles to feed his family of 12. "Whenever it rains, there's no work," he said. "Then all we can afford to eat is bread and tea."

"I'm really happy now," adds a smiling Rasool, who qualifies for the project because of his family's large size. "I can go into the shop and they'll give me what I want!"

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Find out more about WFP's Focus on Women