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After Beirut blast, Lebanese must turn to each other to avoid crisis

It has been nearly three weeks since an enormous explosion at Beirut’s port tore through the city. With Lebanon already suffering from food scarcity, economic collapse and the coronavirus pandemic, the blast turned a grim situation to dire crisis. In the absence of a functioning government, residents are relying on each other's generosity to survive. Special correspondent Jane Ferguson reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It has been nearly three weeks since the devastating explosion at Beirut's port tore through the city.

    In a country already suffering food scarcity and economic collapse, now the challenge is to prevent crisis.

    From Beirut, special correspondent Jane Ferguson reports.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    First came the initial shock of Beirut's massive explosion, ripping through the city, destroying homes and taking lives.

    Now comes the next challenge: averting a dangerous food shortage, despite virtually no help from the nation's leaders.

  • Kamal Mouzawak:

    As the government or the state is not really taking care of its own people, people in Lebanon had always to take care of themselves.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Kamal Mouzawak is an expert in feeding people. For more than 15 years, he's been running Souk el Tayeb, an organization that sponsors farmers markets and restaurants, providing much-needed exposure to local sustainable growers.

    His restaurant in Beirut is now just one of a number of places feeding the neighborhood.

  • Kamal Mouzawak:

    If the job needs to be done, we have to do it ourselves, and this is what we are doing in a most extraordinary way. And if we, the people, can do such a wonderful job, we, the people, should govern this country.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    The challenges here in Beirut are about a lot more than simply feeding people in the midst of this latest crisis. There is a major food security emergency here in Lebanon as a result of the economy collapsing.

    Long before the great blast, Lebanon's economy was already in tatters, hamstrung by a series of chronically ineffective and corrupt governments, plus a banking system that was revealed last year to be little than a Ponzi scheme.

    Millions lost access to their savings, and the cost of food shot up, along with inflation, just as the pandemic hit.

  • David Beasley:

    You had a perfect storm. I mean, just when you think it couldn't get any worse, you have this explosion.

    So, you had economic deterioration. Then you have COVID on top of that. And COVID is playing out as we speak, deteriorating the situation throughout Lebanon, and then the explosion.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    David Beasley is the head of the U.N.'s World Food Program. Lebanon imports more than three-quarters of all its food.

    In order to provide subsidized bread for the people, the government was buying tons of wheat through the port that now lies in ruins. Precious national grain reserves were destroyed in their silos, leaving the country with only two weeks' supply and little cash to buy more.

  • David Beasley:

    Eighty-five percent of all the grains for the people in Lebanon comes through that port. And so we have got to get that port operational.

    Otherwise, the costs will be skyrocketing. In fact, we have already diverted 17,500 metric tons of flour so that immediately people will have bread on the table for the entire country for 20 additional days.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    American celebrity Jose Andres and his team from his charity World Central Kitchen swung into action after the blast and flew to Beirut.

    Now they're helping professional kitchens, like Kamal's, produce some 10,000 meals a day to feed rescue workers, hospital staff and patients, plus those made homeless by the explosion.

  • Jose Andres:

    Shorter walls, longer tables. All of a sudden, yes, it looks like fantasy, but it is real. You can make it happen.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Andres' organization has been feeding people in crisis all over the world, from Puerto Rico to Haiti and across the United States as coronavirus hits hard.

  • Jose Andres:

    This is really a good bite.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    His prolific dedication to social media draws attention to places that need help.

    Beyond sudden emergencies, what is really needed, he says, is a global shift in long-term food security, making sure that people across the world can afford to eat.

  • Jose Andres:

    At the end, the solution is not about food. It's about having an economic system that works for the people. It's as simple as that.

    I'm not an economist. I left the school when I was 14. But this, I can tell you. Let's buy more food and let's give food for free? No, that's not a solution. Let's make sure that we create systems where people, even in emergencies like these, can, on their own, sustain themselves, without going broke, in the simple act of living.

    Right now, if there's poor or hungry people, it's because we have people that go broke, because we are not helping them not go broke. If we are able to fix that, hunger and poverty, it's over forever. But we create systems that are the contrary.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Brant Stewart moved here from Las Vegas several years and opened a charitable bakery called Mavia, serving up trendy sourdough and bagels, while also helping Syrian refugees learn the skills they would need to start their own businesses.

    Located close to the port where the explosion took place, his bakery was damaged in the blast, and, deeply discouraged, he almost closed up for good, until online donations started pouring in, and he turned it into a soup kitchen.

  • Brant Stewart:

    We all have survivor's guilt, you know? Like, I'm not as injured as other people. My business isn't as injured as other peoples' businesses.

    I started to realize, though, we have the space. We have all this money coming in. We need — people need food, you know, high rates of food insecurity in Lebanon. So, yes, we just kind of — it fell into place.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    The women that work here know the struggle of buying food all too well. Dunia Wadha comes from Tripoli, Lebanon's second largest city and one of its poorest.

  • Dunia Wadha (through translator):

    All the food has tripled in price, meat, chicken, sugar, vegetables. They are all so expensive.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Even the price of flour has increased to beyond the reach of many.

  • Brant Stewart:

    Just wheat, for instance, that we buy, the local wheat, it used to be 1250 lira per kilo. It's now 4,000 lira per kilo. So prices have skyrocketed. People's salaries have dropped. It's just — it's created a really unbearable situation for most people, I think.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Fixing the situation will take years of work, eliminating the corruption and waste that ruined Lebanon's economy.

    In the meantime, the people of this country will continue to try to survive through the warm hospitality and kindness they are known for.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jane Ferguson in Beirut, Lebanon.

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