Njabulo Sibanda, 15, who lives in Highfield, a low-income suburb in southwestern Harare, capital of Zimbabwe, is one of the more than one million children in the country orphaned by the AIDS epidemic.
After his parents died of AIDS-related illnesses over a year ago, he had to drop out of school to care for his two brothers, the youngest of whom is only eight. Sibanda does odd jobs, trying to scrape together enough money for school fees, food and the rent for their backyard shack, but it's a mammoth task.
The three children were mostly living off handouts from sympathetic neighbours, or sometimes going without food, until the headmaster at Sibanda's brother's school told them about the Child Protection Society (CPS), a Harare-based non-governmental organisation (NGO) that runs an urban food programme.
The programme was started by Action Aid International (AAI) in 2004, with funding from the UK's Department for International Development (DFID), and is implemented by CPS and other NGOs. The Sibanda children now receive rations of maizemeal, cooking oil, beans, porridge and soap.
"The rations are modest but our lives have become a lot better," Sibanda told IRIN/PlusNews. "There is a bit of decency in the way we survive now, as we no longer have to beg for food from neighbours and strangers like we used to do. I can manage to put aside for other needs part of the money I earn by cleaning other people's cars and selling cigarettes.
The urban food programme operates in Harare and Chitungwiza, a dormitory suburb south of the capital; in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second largest city; and Gweru, capital of Midlands Province. It targets home-based care clients who are chronically ill, families caring for large numbers of orphans and vulnerable children, single-parent households and families without able-bodied adults.
Norah Hunda of CPS said her organisation was reaching 300 households, mostly those with orphans, or those in which the head of the family had little or no source of income.
"The programme is doing a lot to reduce urban food vulnerability, but it should be understood that it is merely supplementary," Hunda told IRIN/PlusNews. "The handouts do not vary with the size of the family or dependants, and where the household is too big this becomes a challenge to those meant to benefit, as they have to find other means of augmenting their rations."
If families have a garden or space to make one, they are taught low-input gardening and provided with seeds and gardening tools; when they do not have land of their own, the city council provides them with some or they are given mobile bags in which to grow vegetables.
Grace Kachitu, 75, of Harare, who lives on her own, has been able to grow tomatoes and beans with the help of the programme. "Due to my advanced age, I have ailments that need good food. I don't have a source of income and with this garden I can adequately feed myself. I even sell some of my produce to buy other things."
A 2007 assessment of the urban food programme found that it benefited 3,145 people in its first two years, but the squeeze on resources resulting from Zimbabwe's economic crisis restricted the number to 2,000 in 2007.
Zimbabwe has been in the throes of an economic meltdown for the past eight years, with hyperinflation of 100,000 percent and still rising, unemployment at an estimated 80 percent, around 80 percent of the population living on less than US$1 dollar per day, and consumers surviving without basic commodities such as water and fuel.
Harare's city council last year said more than a third of the capital's population, officially estimated at around 1.3 million, were living on one meal a day and cases of malnutrition were on the rise. Consecutive years of drought and chronic shortages of agricultural inputs have left millions of people needing food aid.
In an attempt to cushion its beneficiaries from inflation, the urban food programme arranged a food voucher system with a number of supermarket chains to provide households with monthly food packs worth US$18.
The system was disrupted in June 2007 by an acute shortage of basic commodities after the government forced businesses to reduce their prices, which led to manufacturers stopping production because they found the price controls unsustainable.
"Because of the shortages in shops, we are now resorting to placing money into the accounts of beneficiaries, who are being urged to speedily withdraw it and buy their items wherever they can find them, even if it means going to the informal market, where they tend to be more readily available albeit more expensive," said George Jijita, a programme assistant at Padare, a local NGO implementing the urban food programme in Harare and Chitungwiza.
Giving beneficiaries money has its own set of problems, because by the time the payments reflect in the recipients' bank accounts and they are able to withdraw them, the prices of commodities have usually risen even more.