The system used to distribute food rations to Iraqis -- the successor
to the U.N. oil-for-food program -- has thus far failed to adapt
to the massive migration of Iraqis within the country and is restricted
by security problems and the threat of violence.
government-run public distribution system (PDS) was set up to
provide food to Iraqis during the time of severe sanctions against
Saddam Hussein's government.
The rations, or food baskets as they are known, include staple
items like rice, cooking oil, flour, detergent, powdered milk,
sugar and white beans. The amount of each item in the rations
was recently reduced due to availability issues, according to
the Iraqi Embassy in Washington, D.C.
The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees reported
in April that of the 4 million Iraqis who cannot buy enough to
eat, 40 percent don't have regular access to rations supplied
by the PDS.
While the system ran efficiently during Saddam's reign, and was
the largest system of its kind in the world, subsequent breakdowns
in infrastructure and security have caused delays and gaps in
The World Food Programme has been running a supplemental program
for the most vulnerable Iraqis, but is ending that program and
refocusing efforts on internally displaced people (IDPs) driven
from their homes by violence in search of more stable communities.
"For us it is crucial that the PDS should function rightly,"
Stefano Porretti, the World Food Programme director for Iraq,
said from Amman. "The major problem is security -- the absence
of stability -- and partially problems with the management of
The Nongovernmental Coordination Committee in Iraq, which coordinates
70 international and 200 national nongovernmental organizations,
said 47 percent of the population is highly dependent on government
Kasra Mofarah, director of NCCI, said turnover, a lack of good
management and political divisions within the ministries of the
government have all made the PDS less effective.
Ration card complications
No population has been struck harder by failures in the PDS
system than IDPs, who have to transfer their ration cards to their
new locations, a long process that has been impossible for many
"The population is moving so quickly. Some provinces have
closed their borders to IDPs and one way to keep them out is to
stop the transfer of the ration cards," Mofarah said.
Currently, people are required to return to their home region
to apply for the transfer, which is oftentimes dangerous.
"We interviewed dozens of families that had been displaced
from the center and south of Iraq to the north," said Kristele
Younes of Refugees International. "None of them had been
able to transfer their food ration cards."
According to the Iraqi Embassy in Washington, D.C., certain distribution
centers will hand out rations to IDPs who have not been transferred.
A new system also is in the works to allow the temporary issuing
of cards that would allow IDPs to collect rations, but the registration
is still a major obstacle in many places, the World Food Programme's
"We are planning to assist the government to try to find
a more flexible ways to make these IDPs integrated into the regular
PDS cycle ... pending the delivery of a brand new registration
card," said Porretti.
But because the PDS card is also tied to voter registration,
the massive migrations are causing political concerns, too.
"It is still used for voter registration, which is why especially
in the north the KRG [Kurdistan Region Government] is very reluctant
to issue the new cards," said Dana Graber Ladek of the International
Organization for Migration.
The value of rations
The role of rations has extended beyond nutritional needs
during this war. Food has become a source of income for families
who trade the food for money or other necessities, Mofarah said.
"[Iraqis] depend more and more on the PDS while the PDS
is facing more and more obstacles."
There are limited opportunities to earn other revenue for buying
supplies, said Porretti, but it is often the most privileged people
who have access to work.
"The IDPs have no access to work because they move from
their normal residency area to a completely different governorate.
They are the most insecure," Porretti said.
Meanwhile, the same violence causing the large migrations
is disrupting the distribution of food.
Food supplies usually arrive through the Basra port in southern
Iraq. The rations are then taken to the central location of Baghdad
for warehousing, and then distributed via trucks throughout the
That centralized system causes delays in distributing food and
means that food has to be transported for much longer distances
than necessary, according to an Oxfam humanitarian report from
The trucks have been targeted by attacks and their contents can
be valuable for anyone brave enough to stop them, said Porretti.
Even for families who are receiving rations, the food basket
was never intended to be the sole source of a balanced diet for
Iraqis, so it does not contain all the nutrients needed to stay
While the situation is not dire yet, the United Nations Children's
Fund, or UNICEF, reported an increase in malnutrition cases in
Iraq among children since the 2003 invasion through the beginning
of 2006. An increasing number of people are "food insecure,"
a term meaning they do not receive a minimum goal of calories
"The poverty that is hitting middle classes, particularly
in Baghdad -- they haven't seen it before," said Claire Hajaj
of the UNICEF Iraq Support Centre in Amman. "What they are
experiencing now is a reversal of what they are used to. The gap
between how people are used to living and how they are living
now -- they don't have the coping mechanisms."
While there is the sense among humanitarian workers that malnutrition
is still increasing, it is nearly impossible to carry out the
kind of population study necessary to get supporting data since
UNICEF released its last report in 2006. The moving population
and dangerous security situation have made data collection very
"There is very little that is publicly available that can
show us what is happening to children in Iraq over the last 12
to 19 months," Hajaj said. "Do we have the numbers to
prove that malnutrition is worse in Iraq now than it was a year
ago? Sadly no."
But the risk factors have increased, particularly with poor families
losing a caregiver or provider, and a rise in incidents of diarrhea,
the top cause of malnutrition, Hajaj said.
UNICEF's latest figures show that 1 in 12 children is underweight
and the UNHCR lists the chronic child malnutrition rate at 23