Cesar Palma, 75 years old, receives a monthly pension now worth about $10 a month. He goes hungry some days trying to feed his grown daughter and her three children, including Germain, right. His grown daughter and three grandchildren are financial dependents. Mr. Palma and his grandson Germain, 11 years old, eat less food to leave more for the two younger children. Germain’s once-thick hair is turning yellow.
“They need it more than me,” said Germain, who weighs 50 pounds instead of 70 pounds, about the average for a boy his age. Nearby, his brothers, Cesar Augusto, 10 years old, and Angel Jose, age 4, try to fly a handmade kite. “I am hungry,” Germain said. “I feel like a pain in my belly.” Asked his favorite meal, he said, “Arroz con pollo,” rice and chicken, which he last ate in 2015. PHOTO: WIL RIERA FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

YARE, Venezuela— Jean Pierre Planchart, a year old, has the drawn face of an old man and a cry that is little more than a whimper. His ribs show through his skin. He weighs just 11 pounds.

His mother, Maria Planchart, tried to feed him what she could find combing through the trash—scraps of chicken or potato. She finally took him to a hospital in Caracas, where she prays a rice-milk concoction keeps her son alive.

“I watched him sleep and sleep, getting weaker, all the time losing weight,” said Ms. Planchart, 34 years old. “I never thought I’d see Venezuela like this.”

Her country was once Latin America’s richest, producing food for export. Venezuela now can’t grow enough to feed its own people in an economy hobbled by the nationalization of private farms, and price and currency controls.

Venezuela has the world’s highest inflation—estimated by the International Monetary Fund to reach 720% this year—making it nearly impossible for families to make ends meet. Since 2013, the economy has shrunk 27%, according to local investment bank Torino Capital; imports of food have plunged 70%.

Hordes of people, many with children in tow, rummage through garbage, an uncommon sight a year ago. People in the countryside pick farms clean at night, stealing everything from fruits hanging on trees to pumpkins on the ground, adding to the misery of farmers hurt by shortages of seed and fertilizer. Looters target food stores. Families padlock their refrigerators.

Three in four Venezuelans said they had lost weight last year, an average of 19 pounds, according to the National Poll of Living Conditions, an annual study by social scientists. People here, in a mix of rage and humor, call it the Maduro diet after President Nicolás Maduro.

For more than a month, Venezuelans have protested against the increasingly authoritarian government of Mr. Maduro; by Friday, more than 35 people had been reported killed in the unrest. The country’s Food Ministry, the president’s office, the Communications Ministry and the Foreign Ministry didn’t return calls or emails requesting comment for this article.

“Here, for the government, there are no malnourished children,” said Livia Machado, a physician and child malnutrition expert. “The reality is this is an epidemic, and everyone should be paying attention to this.”

Dr. Machado and her team of doctors are seeing a dramatic increase in emaciated infants brought to the Domingo Luciani Hospital in Caracas, where they work.

The problem is no better in towns like Yare, south of Caracas, where the government’s leftist movement was long popular. “To eat,” said Sergio Jesus Sorjas, 11 years old, “I sometimes go to the butcher and I say, ‘Sir, do you have any bones you can give me?’ ”

The boy receives nutritional formula or a traditional Venezuelan corncake from the parish priest. Sergio said he hasn’t tasted meat in months: “Sometimes, I don’t eat at all.”

Dr. Livia Machado tells Keithy Olivo, 19 years old, about the severe malnutrition of Ms. Olivo’s baby daughter, Thaikelys, at the Domingo Luciani Hospital in Caracas.
Dr. Livia Machado tells Keithy Olivo, 19 years old, about the severe malnutrition of Ms. Olivo’s baby daughter, Thaikelys, at the Domingo Luciani Hospital in Caracas. PHOTO: MIGUEL GUTIÉRREZ FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
The Catholic charity Caritas and a team led by Susana Raffalli —a specialist in food emergencies who has worked in Guatemala, Africa and other regions tormented by hunger—are monitoring conditions here.

The most recent Caritas study of 800 children under the age of 5 in Yare and three other communities showed that in February nearly 11% suffered from severe acute malnutrition, which is potentially fatal, compared with 8.7% in October. Caritas said nearly a fifth of children under age 5 in those four communities suffered from chronic malnutrition, which stunts growth and could mark a generation.

“What’s serious is not that we’re at the crisis threshold, but rather the velocity at how we got there,” Ms. Raffalli said.

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