THUAN THANH, Vietnam (AP) — Vo Thi Quan's chopsticks needle deftly between two simple Vietnamese dishes sizzling on a hot plate. In her crude brick kitchen, she's working magic to create a dinner out of next to nothing.
Her table has gone two years without meat, so shredded pieces of hardened tofu fill the protein void. Cheap stalks of fried water spinach and a vegetable omelet complete the small meal that must be shared by four. It cost about half the money Quan earned scavenging scrap all day.
She eats last from the smallest bowl, nibbling slowly, to keep the rest of the family from going hungry. She even manages to save some of the meal for breakfast.
As world food prices surge to the highest levels ever recorded due to a combination of production constraints and rising demand from expanding middle classes, many poor families teeter on the edge, and it is the mothers who often quietly bear the brunt.
It's difficult to measure the impact of the food crisis on mothers, but even before it began, the U.N. World Food Program said women made up about 60 percent of those going to bed hungry every night worldwide. With cultural practices in some countries dictating that women and girls eat last, many are now making do with even less.
"They are more likely to skip meals and eat less to ensure their children and husbands get most of their meals," said Hassan Zaman, a World Bank economist on poverty reduction and equality.
The Asian Development Bank estimates some 64 million people worldwide have already nose-dived below the poverty line over the past few months due to the food-price crisis.
Quan's simple dinner cost about 27,000 dong ($1.32). That's up about 20 percent from a year ago after inflation spiked to double-digit levels in Vietnam, which has one of Asia's fastest growing economies but also an average monthly income that still hovers around $100 a month.
Since the beginning of the year, electricity has also shot up 15 percent in the communist country of 87 million, while gasoline prices hit a record high following a 17.5 percent to 24 percent increase at the pumps.
Quan and her husband were struggling even when the cost of living was lower: They have one daughter who is mentally disabled and another who has battled cancer. And with their tiny budget squeezed tighter than ever, she sees only one solution. It's a choice made each day by desperate mothers everywhere.
"My income is not stable, so we have to eat less," the 44-year-old says. "Mostly we have vegetable soup and sometimes we use cooking oil to make stir-fried vegetables."
Seven days a week, Quan wakes at 5 a.m. and takes four buses three hours roundtrip to reach Vietnam's sprawling financial hub, Ho Chi Minh City, in the country's south.
She pushes a metal cart along a river running black with raw sewage and polluted sludge near the slum where she earns her living going door-to-door in search of scrap. She walks miles every day in the oven-like heat, wearing a tattered conical hat and blackened gloves to keep her skin from baking. She collects plastic soda bottles, broken electric fans, cardboard, anything that can be resold for a few pennies.
On a good day, she'll bring in the equivalent of $5, but most of the time it's just $2 or $3. Her husband, Nguyen Ngoc Hanh, spends half the year farming rice and the other half working with Quan, but he also stays home at times to care for their 11-year-old mentally disabled daughter.
Quan has been hunting for scrap nearly half her life, but she doesn't complain. Vietnamese women have always served as the country's workhorses, digging ditches, carrying bricks and shoveling hot asphalt on roads. She's happy to labor 13 or 14 hours a day, only to come home to do the laundry, cooking and cleaning. But she is consumed by a nagging fear she cannot control, no matter how hard she works.
Two years ago her middle daughter, Nguyen Thanh Tuyen, then 14, was stricken with a life-threatening bone cancer and the family's meager savings were quickly devoured. Even though they qualified for some free medical care, it did not cover chemotherapy, X-rays, visits to specialists and expensive medicines.
The family took out a 30 million dong ($1,470) bank loan, and relatives pulled together another 30 million that can be repaid slowly without interest. Tuyen, now 16, survived only by having her right leg amputated at the hip, leaving her hobbling on worn crutches because the family cannot afford a proper prosthetic.
"If she gets sick again, I'm not sure where the money would come from," the mother says softly. "She might die."
With so much debt, Quan started buying discounted day-old produce and was forced to stop buying meat, except for small portions just for Tuyen to help rebuild her strength. Pork and beef prices skyrocketed during the 2008 food crisis, and they have only gone higher during the latest round of hikes. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization said global food prices hit an all-time high in February and dropped off only slightly in March and April.
Quan's family has continued to go without meat, except once a year during the Lunar New Year holiday, known as Tet. To help keep them from going hungry, last year Quan's in-laws gave the family a small plot of land to farm enough rice for their table — a smart move since the cost of rice in Vietnam is now among the most expensive in Asia, having jumped nearly 40 percent between June 2010 and February.
The savings from the rice crop should have helped the family slowly recover, but rising food prices have dashed their hopes of putting any money aside. Instead, they live meal to meal.
Quan says they have no means to repay the family loan, and she constantly fears they will miss bank payments. But none of that matters when balanced against her biggest worry — the cancer returning.
Experts say a catastrophic family illness, accident or financial shock like a jump in food costs often breaks those who are just squeaking by. Escalating food prices are forcing some to eat seeds reserved for next year's crop. Others have to cut back intake altogether, skipping meals and rationing what little can be bought.
"Children who are deprived of enough nutrition, of enough food, at a crucial stage in their life suffer permanent reductions in their height and their weight," said Mahesh Patel at UNICEF's regional office in Bangkok. "We are especially concerned about the situation of children when malnutrition is rising in general in the population as a result of food prices rising."
Pregnant women also are at risk by eating less and resorting to cheaper, poor-quality foods that can result in low birth weights.
For Quan, the well-being of her three daughters is paramount. The oldest is in college, studying to be a teacher, and the whole family is pinning their hopes on her success.
"I'm willing to sacrifice to do whatever I can to give my kids an education," Quan says proudly. "I don't want to see my children have the same fate as me."
After cooking the evening meal, she places the dishes on the table. The mismatched plates, glasses and bowls, along with every other fixture in the concrete, tin-roofed house, have been scavenged from the streets.
Her 47-year-old husband arrives with their youngest daughter, Trieu. She runs smiling and leaps onto her mother, wrapping both arms and legs around her in a huge hug.
Trieu is much smaller than other girls her age. She learned to walk at age 4 and talk at age 6, and now attends a special class for mentally disabled children. Those school fees, along with the amount paid for the eldest daughter's college expenses, eat up half of the $200 Quan and her husband earn every month. Food accounts for nearly the rest of their income.
As a cool breeze blows and the sun fades, the family washes up for dinner.
Quan's husband makes a sucking sound as he quickly shovels in mouthfuls of tofu, rice and omelet before reaching for seconds. Quan digs through the choice pieces of tofu with her chopsticks, hand-feeding them to little Trieu. She then fills her tiny bowl and chews slowly, picking at the rice and twigs of spinach while leaving the protein-rich egg and bean curd for the others.
When everyone is finished, Quan scurries to wrap up what's left for a breakfast only her husband and daughters will eat.
She will rise early and leave the house on an empty stomach, hoping to earn enough to make a little more magic in the kitchen tomorrow.