It is not always a lack of available food that causes people to go hungry.

And the world’s most expensive plate of food (relative to income) is found not at a swanky restaurant in New York, Paris or Tokyo, but in South Sudan.

A plate of beans and rice can cost more than a day’s wages
Image: Reuters/Jiro Ose

The World Food Programme (WFP) has calculated the cost of food as a proportion of income in a special index called “Counting the Beans”, with devastating implications.

The real price of a plate of bean stew is $321.7 in South Sudan but just $1.20 in New York.

It means that someone living in New York might spend just 0.6% of their daily income on the ingredients to make a simple bean stew, whereas someone in South Sudan would need to spend 155% of their daily income.

That means working for a day and a half to afford a simple meal. And the result is hunger.

According to the Counting the Beans index, the same bean stew would cost $27.77 in Nepal, $72.65 in Haiti and $190.11 in Syria.

Image: World Food Programme

Supply and demand

The WFP calculated the price of a basic plate of food in a poor part of the world, and expressed it as a percentage of average daily income. Then it was scaled up to show what a person in a rich country would have to pay, in proportion to their income, for an equivalent plate of food.

There are many reasons why a plate of food might cost a day’s wages in one country and a handful of small change in another.

The supply chain – or the complex web of relationships that get food from where it is grown to the people who want to eat it – is a critical factor in the availability and affordability of food.

Any disruption to the supply chain – due to conflict, political instability, poor roads and extreme weather – can send prices rocketing.

South Sudan is one such example.

It has extensive arable land, water and oil reserves as well as herds of cattle and stocks of fish.

But the combination of a lack of infrastructure, seasonal flooding and ongoing conflict means the transfer of fresh food is consistently interrupted.

Conflict can have a devastating impact on food prices
Image: Reuters/Goran Tomasevic

The threat of starvation

A special WFP operation has helped build a network of new tarmacked roads to help transport food.

“People can produce a lot of food here but it would get rotten because there was no road to move the produce to markets where it could be sold,” explains Ochange Walter, the Mayor of Magwi town.

“Now … each day, about 10 vehicles take food to Juba. They will be in Juba within three hours. Before the road came, it took a week,” he said.

But whilst roads are clearly beneficial, the spread of armed conflict will still stop food getting to the people who need it most.

The humanitarian situation in South Sudan has significantly worsened over the past year, with the multiplication and fragmentation of militia groups.

The conflict in South Sudan has left many people dependent on aid
Image: Reuters/Siegfried Modola

The price of a can of beans

Famine has been declared in two regions of South Sudan this year, and the number of people on the brink of mass starvation is climbing, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council.

In the coming weeks South Sudan’s leadership and the various armed groups are expected to come together for peace talks for the first time in months.

The outcome of those talks will have a direct impact on the price of food for ordinary South Sudanese people.

In 2016, 795 million people were hungry. That number is expected to rise in 2017.

Counting the Beans is an attempt to pin down the cost of a basic plate of food in selected countries and translate it into terms that people can relate to.

Perhaps it is only by imagining a can of beans costing more than your daily wage, that people in developed countries can start to understand the extent of the hunger that some are facing.