(AFP) The garbage truck brakes and desperate teen Rebeca Leon runs up to root hungrily through the bin bags.
Venezuela is rich in oil but an economic crisis has reduced her and millions of others to extreme poverty.
Instead of doing homework, the 18-year-old is hunting for food in the streets to feed her two-year-old son and her disabled mother.
“My mom is putting weight back on now because I have been searching for food like this,” she says.
Rebeca has been doing it for six months as inflation and shortages have worsened. When the school day finishes, she heads to Caracas’s posher districts to pick up what richer citizens have thrown away.
“My mother did not want to accept it,” she says. “But what else can I do with the way the country is?”
– Losing weight –
Some 9.6 million Venezuelans are living on two or fewer meals a day, according to the Living Conditions Survey.
And 1.5 million are living on food given to them or found in bins, says one of the report’s authors, nutritionist Maritza Landaeta.
Nearly 52 per cent of the population lives in extreme poverty, says the study by a group of universities.
Seven out of 10 people in the country have lost weight — 8.7 kilograms (17 pounds) on average.
Rebeca says her mother “had got to the point where her bones were showing through. My son was becoming undernourished so at last I said, I have to go and look for food in the street.”
– Humiliation –
Rebeca waits in a small crowd of 70 people, including several children, for the rubbish trucks to come.
The group shares out the food from those and from the bins in the restaurants.
“I used to cry because I felt humiliated. But I don’t care about that anymore,” she says.
“If you don’t have a job, and you don’t look in the bins, then you don’t eat.”
Outside one restaurant, unemployed builder Jose Godoy, 53, anxiously licks a disposable plate he has found.
His daughters of seven and nine drink juice found in a can.
They are suffering from anaemia. They are used to eating just banana or yucca once a day.
“One night, we had to go to bed without eating. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. The children were crying: ‘I’m hungry,” he says.
“I sold my tools and everything, and in the end I came out searching in the streets. There are thousands of us living off garbage.”
– Bags of food –
The crisis caused by falling oil prices has raised pressure on Socialist President Nicolas Maduro.
Opponents blame corruption and his economic management for the crisis.
Supermarkets sell rations of food and household supplies. But even at state-subsidized prices they are unaffordable for many.
The International Monetary Fund estimates that inflation will reach 1,660 per cent this year.
Maduro says poverty actually lessened last year. The United Nations acknowledged his efforts to fight hunger in 2015.
His government has been targeting bags of subsidised goods at poor areas. He says that will help millions of households this year.
But Rebeca and her family have only received those bags twice.
– Faint with hunger –
Tired and haggard, Rebeca returns home having found virtually nothing.
“Sometimes you do, and sometimes you don’t — at least not today. Today it went badly,” she says.
Next she must walk for an hour to get to school as her hungry daily grind begins again.
There she will study alongside schoolmates who sometimes “faint from hunger,” she says.
“I don’t want to carry on like this.”