Zimbabwean villager Connie Garandemo considers it an unusual day when she and her family can scrape together a third meal.
They grow runinga, a grain resembling sesame seed, on a small plot at their homestead in Garisanai village. But after erratic rains last year, their harvest filled only three buckets.
"We only eat two meals a day, once in the morning and then in the evening," said Garandemo, a 43-year-old mother of two from the southeastern district of Buhera, one of the districts now facing acute food shortages.
The people of Buhera are among the 1.6 million of Zimbabwe's 13 million population that will require food aid during the lean season, according to the United Nations World Food Programme.
Formerly a regional breadbasket, Zimbabwe's food production has slumped in recent years, a situation critics blame on veteran President Robert Mugabe's land reforms which saw the forced redistribution of white-owned farmland to new black farmers, some of whom lacked the means, skills and experience to farm.
But the government blames the poor harvests on erratic rainfall patterns brought on by climate change.
The Garandemo family's morning meal is made up of slightly-ripe pawpaws peeled and sliced into strips that they boil after sprinkling with salt.
Their normal evening meal is the staple sadza, a thick cornmeal porridge, served with boiled pumpkin plant leaves or kale.
Both Connie Garandemo and her husband Kennedy are living with HIV and on antiretroviral therapy -- a powerful regimen of medication whose outcome is improved by decent nutrition.
The Garandemos were forced to barter three turkeys from their brood of six for bags of corn. Kennedy does odd jobs when he can, like mending garden fences and thatching houses, and gets paid in grain or second-hand clothes.
"He too is living with HIV but he has no choice but to go away for weeks at times to look for small jobs to get food," Connie said.
"Sometimes, I can't sleep at night thinking about my husband wherever he will be and wondering whether he is safe and in good health."
In the toughest of times, the family can only afford a single meal and the children have been forced to miss school, she said.
Village head Jaison Zinanga said food shortages were a perennial problem and villagers often came to beg for food, even when he was battling to provide for his own family.
"I have people coming to me asking for food. I help when I can. Sometimes I take them to the local councillor or the chief and ask them to look for donors.
"The situation is bad. The wells are dry, so people cannot grow their own food when the rains go."
He said some aid organisations had sunk boreholes in the villages, but these were few and far apart.
The worst affected areas include vast stretches of the southern Matabeleland province, Masvingo, Mashonaland east and parts of Manicaland province, which borders Mozambique.
World Food Programme spokeswoman Victoria Cavanagh said the severity of the food shortages had prompted the agency to begin dispatching food aid to needy areas earlier than it normally does in October.
"We will be starting earlier in September and we plan to meet the growing need of the people through a combination of in-kind (food for work) food distribution and cash transfers in appropriate areas."
Signs of distress started emerging earlier than in previous years, the food agency said, and by June its field officers started reporting "empty granaries, distress sales of livestock, reducing the number of meals per day and all these point to a dire situation".
"To cover our seasonal targeted assistance programme, it's going to cost $119 million and at the moment, $87 million of that is not yet resourced," Cavanagh said.© ANP/AFP