The Narrative of Lack

IMG_20160128_122541877I met a vegan couple, one of them from Mexico and the other from the US, at Te Quiero Verde, a vegetarian restaurant with this awesome mural. The American has been involved in animal rights and other activism since the 90s. Upon hearing about my project, he told me the following story about the effects of food aid in Haiti, where he worked for several years.

In the middle of the last century, Haiti produced and consumed its own rice. At some point, it even exported rice as aid. And then, following a natural disaster, it started being flooded with American rice, which killed off local rice production as Haitian farmers couldn’t compete. The American rice was milled white rice with little nutritional value, while Haitian rice was brown. The effect of killing off local production was therefore not only economic but directly nutritional as well. And thus, in supposedly addressing a problem another one was created, leaving Haitians more in need of measures to address malnutrition.

Food aid can not be thought of in disjunction from the economic system in which it takes place. As critics have long pointed out, it has often been built on a donor-based logic, which means that the primary function of food aid is to fulfill the needs of donors – for example rice or milk producers – as opposed to the needs of the recipients. As expected however, rhetoric around food aid focuses on the recipients – their starvation, their malnutrition, their poverty. It is portrayed as a generous donation to address a pressing need in the recipient population.

Part of my work here is to look at the effects of food aid – in changing local markets, one also changes local food cultures. But analyzing the effects of aid also involves taking a critical eye to the narrative of lack. Is it real? Is it created? Is it being effectively addressed through aid? Is it the result of a larger systemic issue? If so, how does aid fit into the factors that created the need?

In the case of Haiti, aid wiped out an important source of nutrition and replaced it with empty calories. At some point in the cycle, the lost nutrients will need to be recuperated, perhaps with more aid. Where malnutrition exists it has a story and a cause, yet the marketing of aid is predicated on the implicit notion that malnutrition, hunger or poverty are default states.

When thinking about the distribution of milk to children, it’s interesting to take stock of the other foods that make up, or could make up, their diets. The idea that milk is an essential source of calcium is for many an almost unshakable truth – vegans who claim they get their calcium from almonds or broccoli are often met with doubtful looks. The same belief exists in Mexico. My conversations with women have yielded that they are exposed to the constant message – from medical professionals and commercials – that milk is a necessary source of calcium for them and their children.

Ironically, the basis itself of Mexican food is the tortilla, which is traditionally highly rich in calcium. For thousands of years, tortillas have been made with a process called nixtamalization, whereby the grains of corn are soaked in a lye solution for an entire day. The corn is then rinsed and ground and tortillas are made with the resulting wet mass. Nixtamilization drastically improves the nutritional profile of corn in several ways, among which, by adding calcium. In recent decades, traditional tortillerias have been mostly replaced by those selling Maseca tortillas, a brand owned by the large Mexican multinational Gruma. The move from an artesanal to an industrial process has resulted in a tortilla that is less calcium-rich. (Of course, people have also started consuming large amounts of other products churned out by Big Ag – coke, sabritas, etc – none of them nutritionally dense).

An approach that would truly benefit recipients would be to nurture and build on the existent basis – and the basis here is extremely rich. The state of Chiapas actually gets its name from the chia seed, another calcium powerhouse. An abundance of greens have also traditionally been grown in milpas and harvested in the wild, but their consumption is declining.* While milk and other industrial foods are ushered into marginal communities as food aid, traditional food systems are being dismantled by the market forces that create malnourished kids.

It’s worth taking a moment to consider the implications of a narrative that positions milk as essential in a context where it is not traditionally consumed.

Imagine growing up in the West. You’ve rarely, if ever, come across yucca. As an adult, you suddenly start to see it everywhere. It is promoted to the middle-class through commercials and gracefully bestowed on the poor to ensure their health. Medical staff insist that mothers absolutely must feed their children yucca everyday. It would seem that until that moment in history, nothing your family grew or ate for generations, nothing you could find in a store growing up, was nourishment enough to ensure your children would be well-fed.

The promotion of milk is linked to another implicit narrative of lack. Many foods are said to be healthy – some have been even labeled “superfoods”. To position a food as necessary is something else altogether. As milk becomes increasingly central to public health discourse and social assistance programs around the world, it subtly delegitimizes traditional foods as possible sources of nutrition and health. The idea may be unarticulated but clear: before the Spanish brought their cows and culture, there was no way for children in Chiapas to have strong bones and develop healthily. Luckily for them, Nestlé, Lala and others continue their benevolent crusade.

*This was the recent topic of the Masters thesis of an acquaintance, I’ll devote another post to her work.

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