The crowd of 150 reacted with disbelief and anger.
“Life is hard, all things are expensive, there are no price controls and inflation just keeps getting worse,” said Benjamini Dunha, 57, a plumber who makes 700 Zimbabwe dollars a month — about $38 at official exchange rates. Less than a year ago, his salary was worth much closer to $700.
Another shopper, Nyasha Domboka, 52, spoke cynically about a truckful of maize meal, also known as mealie meal, that he had just seen in the depot parking lot. “How can mealie-meal packed just recently be said to have gone bad all of a sudden?” he asked.
A combination of government dysfunction, an economic meltdown, droughts and a calamitous cyclone this past March have hurtled Zimbabwe toward a hunger disaster that has become the most severe in southern Africa and among the most alarming in the world. While food is not necessarily scarce yet, it is becoming unaffordable for all but the privileged few.
“I cannot stress enough the urgency of the situation in Zimbabwe,” Hilal Elver, an independent United Nations human rights expert on food security, said after a 10-day visit in November. Sixty percent of the country’s 14 million people, Ms. Elver said, are “food-insecure, living in a household that is unable to obtain enough food to meet basic needs.”
Hunger in Africa is a pervasive problem, but in Zimbabwe, once known as the continent’s breadbasket, it has been compounded by dysfunction that has left the country in its most serious economic crisis in a decade. The annual inflation rate, which the International Monetary Fund has called the world’s highest, is 300 percent.
Maize meal, a staple of the Zimbabwean diet, doubled in price in November to 101 Zimbabwe dollars per 10-kilogram sack. Now it costs 117. In early December, a two-liter bottle of cooking oil cost 59 Zimbabwe dollars. Now it costs more than 72.
“The money here is valueless now,” said Mr. Dunha, who has eight children. All they can afford to eat, he said, are vegetables and sadza, a thick porridge of boiled maize meal.
Gerald Bourke, a spokesman for the southern Africa operations of the World Food Program, the anti-hunger agency of the United Nations, said that until recently, 60 percent of its assistance to Zimbabweans was in the form of cash, but that the recipients no longer want the money.
“Inflation is a rampant problem and people said, ‘we’d prefer the food,’’’ Mr. Bourke said.
So by January, he said, the agency intends to switch to a “fully in-kind food program” for the first time in Zimbabwe, distributing monthly rations of grain, oil and nutritional supplements for children younger than 5. The agency also will double the number of recipients to four million.
“This is certainly the worst we are seeing in southern Africa,” Mr. Bourke said during a mid-December field visit to Harare, the capital. While cases of acute hunger have not been uncommon in rural Zimbabwe, “it’s seen in the cities now,” he said. “Hungry people in the countryside are moving to the cities” in search of food.
The finance minister, Mthuli Ncube, said on Friday that the government would be spending 180 million Zimbabwe dollars a month on subsidies as part of an effort to keep the price of maize meal stable.
But for many Zimbabweans, there is fear that the inflation problem portends a return to the days more than a decade ago when a trip to buy groceries required wheelbarrows of cash. Even now, purchases of anything beyond maize meal is considered a luxury.
“We used to buy favorite foods such as ice cream, cheese, bacon, sausages and ham and prepare good breakfasts for our families, “ said Moreblessing Nyambara, a 35-year-old Harare schoolteacher. “These things are a vision of the past now.”
Many historians attribute Zimbabwe’s predicament to the legacy of Robert Mugabe, the father of independence in 1980. An icon of African anti-colonialism, Mr. Mugabe became a despot and presided over the decline of what had been one of Africa’s most prosperous lands. He was ousted in 2017, and died in September at age 95.
Any hopes that Mr. Mugabe’s former ally and successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa, could revive Zimbabwe’s economy have almost completely faded.
This past June Mr. Mnangagwa scrapped a policy known as dollarization, in which the United States dollar and other foreign currencies were used as legal tender. That policy had been introduced in 2009, and helped end an era of hyperinflation, which had rendered the Zimbabwe dollar less valuable, literally, than the paper it was printed on.
But a newly introduced version of the Zimbabwe dollar has plunged in value, drastically raising the prices of goods priced in the currency.
Foreigners are reluctant to invest in Zimbabwe despite Mr. Mnangagwa’s proclamation that the country is “open for business.” Export sales and remittances from the Zimbabwean diaspora, important sources of United States dollars needed to import food and fuel, have fallen.
Mr. Mnangagwa has rejected calls to restore dollarization.
“No progressive nation can progress without its own currency,” he told members of the ruling ZANU-PF party at their annual conference in mid-December. “We will not revert back.”
Still, for now, the inflation problem remains less severe than what prevailed more than a decade ago.
At that time, prices were doubling every day, reaching a point where a single sheet of two-ply toilet paper cost nearly as much as a 500-Zimbabwe-dollar bill, then the smallest in circulation. That comparison spawned grim jokes about a better use for the currency.
Four million Zimbabweans are now not that far away from famine, according to a scale commonly used internationally to classify the severity of food insecurity and malnutrition. In the scale’s five phases, Phase 1 is minimal and Phase 5 is famine.
Mr. Bourke, the program spokesman, said the hungriest Zimbabweans are now in either Phase 3 or Phase 4.
With Zimbabwe’s last maize harvest down by half compared with the year before because of drought, he said, the aid will continue until at least through the end of April, when the next harvest is due. But he was not optimistic.
“The weather forecasters are basically saying we’re looking at a very dry growing season,” Mr. Bourke said.
Ursula Mueller, the deputy emergency relief coordinator at the United Nations, who visited Zimbabwe in June, said the country’s travails were partly tied to a broader climate crisis in southern Africa that has rippled through all facets of life.
Drought begets less food, which in turn begets declines in health and education and increases in crime and other “negative coping mechanisms,” she said.
“This is not just a food crisis, it is a wider more complicated situation,” she said in a telephone interview on Friday. “People have to make choices: Do I seek H.I.V. treatment or food?”
Ms. Mueller also said a United Nations humanitarian budget for Zimbabwe had received only half the nearly $468 million requested, forcing her office to dip into other emergency funding. Humanitarian aid by the United Nations is financed almost entirely by voluntary contributions.
Beyond immediate assistance, Ms. Mueller said, more investments were needed to address the root causes of problems in Zimbabwe and other countries that have the potential for more self-sufficiency.
“We need to move out of this cycle of dependency,” she said. Otherwise, “humanitarians find themselves in protracted situations for years.”