From tree to plate
Tracing the journey of World Food Programme (WFP) cash assistance to ensure that the market in Palestine can meet Yara’s food needs
“Be careful,” my colleague Majdi says as we drive through the rolling hills of Palestine, “The longer you stay, the harder it is to leave.” The nature of his warning is not as I expected.
“We call it Palestine syndrome,” he says chuckling to himself. A joke I’m sure rings close to heart after recently moving back to Palestine from abroad on a gut feeling. Majdi, like many Palestinians, adopts a light-hearted humor to reflect on this complex place he calls home.
We drive through Majdi’s hometown, Hebron — a vibrant city often the spotlight of late night news. Passing Hebron, we reach Yatta, a grey village hidden in fields of olive trees. Bare rectangle buildings and deserted streets collide with what looks like a Tuscan landscape of lush trees and life everywhere. We reach a home off the paved roads where the roof caves in and windows disappear. Here, up crumbling stairs, we meet Yara.
Yara, 36, works hard to provide for her five children after her husband abandoned them. A struggle for many women in impoverished towns in Palestine where marriage is often a matter of finances, and love is seen as a luxury of time to find.
The one stability in Yara’s life is monthly cash assistance from the UN World Food Programme (WFP). Each month, she buys eggs and flour in bulk from a store down the street, a local mom-and-pop shop contracted by WFP.
Yara cannot afford the bakery. Instead when the sky is a warm hue of orange as the sun rises, she wakes each morning to knead dough while the children lay asleep in a bedroom serving too as their kitchen. It’s a simple life of simple meals for Yara and her family: hummus for lunch, eggs for dinner, bread every morning and night.
My colleagues and I are here in the West Bank to conduct a market assessment. We will trace the journey of Yara’s cash assistance, following its path up the supply chain to ensure the market can meet her food needs.
But the market assessment does not begin in the market. No — it always starts in a home. Sitting cross-legged in a circle with Yara and her family, here we can understand not only the needs of families living off WFP assistance, but their experience too.
But the market assessment does not begin in the market. No — it always starts in a home.
Grocery shopping is engraved deeply into daily life, vital to survival, yet mundane enough that many of us can take for granted. But if we take a step back and think about it: we all have our own stories like Yara that define how we shop. These stories make up our values when buying the food we serve to ourselves and our families.
For some people, prices are essential. For others, it’s quality. Some people find the gourmet shop with the extravagant cheese counter is worth the extra dollars. Maybe they have a keen taste for brie. While others are more inclined to drive across town for bargain hunting at the no-frills shop. Maybe they like the thrill of ringing up a coupon.
In a market touched by conflict and instability, instead of investigating if shops carry fancy French cheese, WFP must ensure the supply chain in Palestine can access food in the first place. But the assessment is about more than access. It also aims to understand the values Palestinians, like all of us, have when grocery shopping.
Maybe those values won’t translate into cheese or coupons. But we do know that Yara prefers convenience when her life demands she is home with her children. She shops at the closest store for simple, not luxury items. These are key parts of Yara’s shopping behavior, shaped uniquely by her life.
Do the shops WFP contract meet her values? With Yara’s story in mind, we’re ready to enter the marketplace to find out.
Talking business in the market
It often feels like detective work conducting a market assessment. With no predisposed questions or surveys, only clues from long conversations can lead us to the next part of the supply chain — from consumer to source, or as we like to say, from mouth to plate.
The “investigation” takes us up the road to where Yara shops. We spend hours talking with the small shop owner. But we don’t talk in humanitarian language with the usual United Nations jargon — sustainable development, kilo-calories, resiliency. We speak in a language the shop keeper understands — sales, competition, profit margins. We talk business.
The owner shares valuable market information about his buying and sourcing over bottomless cups of Arabic coffee. More than coffee, it serves as a piece of the deeply rooted Palestinian hospitality. Never have I been so graciously welcomed into a shop, or country before.
We move to the next shop, and another. More coffee is poured. Another five shops visited, another five cups shared. By the end of this cycle we meet twelve shopkeepers and three wholesalers throughout the West Bank, and one thing is clear. Our caffeine level is surged. That, and it’s time to fit the next piece in the puzzle. It’s time to talk with the main suppliers.
The final piece
Dairy, like coffee, is essential to the Palestinian diet. Milk, eggs, labneh — a thin yogurt popular throughout the Middle East — are all on Yara’s shopping list. And all the shops we visit showcase bright refrigerators filled with dairy products, made here in Palestine. Distributing milk to over 6,000 shops in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Al Juneidi is a leading dairy company. As a key player in the market, we pay them a visit and again, drink coffee and talk business — learning about dairy production and distribution in Palestine.
Finally, we meet the last piece in the puzzle: importers. We learn from these key players the origins of popular products in Palestine. Rice from Thailand and Australia, flour from Ukraine, it becomes clear this is a diverse and mature marketplace capable of meeting Yara’s needs.
A quiet shuffling of lives
The heart of the market, where most suppliers reside, is in Hebron, a charming city. Built on hills, the streets where children play football drop on a steep incline leading to the old market. The spice market is lined with shop stalls, mostly vacant, like an old souq. People fill the narrow streets — no cars.
Bakeries spill out from stalls onto folding tables showcasing an array of Arabic sweets where people gather to taste kanafe — a gooey mild cheese soaked in honey, wrapped in phyllo dough and topped with pistachios. Kanafe, besides a masterpiece of sweets, is a quintessential piece of the Palestinian identity.
While some people seek fancy cheese displays or bargain hunting, I think we found the niche of grocery values for Palestinians here at the old market. The food-centric street is busy, yet calm — a quiet shuffling of lives. A dance of souls colliding, and people living while the news shows otherwise.
It feels as if time rewound on these cobbled streets, until Majdi points out to me the bullet holes in the steel doors of shop stalls. The market in the West Bank may be developing but reminders of conflict remain.
“It’s hard to see things flourish here,” Majdi says as we pass the stalls. But somehow, they do — the market, and the people too.
Connecting the parts
At the end of the assessment, we map the food supply chain. It is the map of a developed market with endless parts. From WFP cash, to the kitchen where Yara bakes bread, to the shop around the corner, to the wheat mills in Ukraine, we see everything’s connected. It’s a beautiful thing to zoom out and see the big picture: how the wealthy importer in Hebron connects to the small business owner in Yatta. We realize all the intricate parts working together to make the bread Yara serves to her family, putting food on the table.
As we exit the checkpoint from the West Bank, it’s impossible to turn our heads. We watch behind us as the olive fields and rolling hills grow smaller and smaller in the distance. Our breaths smell of coffee, our stomachs full of kanafe, we have been fed the rich culture of Palestine.
With a smile, I turn to Majdi. “Tell me. Is this what Palestine syndrome feels like?”