On milk and food aid

As I sat on a bench to wait for a friend, I struck up a conversation with an indigenous woman holding a baby. She was curious about what I was doing and wanted to know about my study, so I began to speak of my questions regarding food aid. When I got to milk, she confirmed that “people don’t drink milk”. She went on: most people in indigenous communities don’t drink milk, but some who receive government aid may drink what they receive. However, she said that government food aid, or “despensas”, are met with the suspicion that they may be the government’s way to try to make people ill. Given the history and political context of Chiapas, the distrust is understandable.

An idea crossed my mind – was it possible that the distrust is compounded by negative reactions to the foods dispensed? For example, if lactose intolerant folks experience discomfort upon drinking government-issued milk, it might make their hypothesis more convincing.

Unfortunately, my friend arrived and the conversation was cut short. I wasn’t able to probe further but it was clear that according to this woman, despensas are not broadly welcomed, at least not for direct consumption. What many do is sell items on the market, as evidenced in the pictures below. I took these at the San Cristobal market, where stands selling “not for sale” government foods are a common sight.

From what I’ve learned so far, despensas typically contain fortified tuna, instant soups, canned tomato puree, oil, sugar, rice, simple fortified cookies, and fortified milk. I conducted a lengthy interview today with the owner of my hostel and her impression of the general acceptance of despensas was different. On the other hand, she converged on the question of milk in indigenous communities – it is not widely consumed.

I’ll leave you with a compelling picture she painted of the changes underway. I asked her to create an image comparing a typical child’s post-weening diet in 1950 and 2016. Instead, she created two images. In 1950, children in San Cristobal and indigenous communities were drinking atol and pozol; in 2016, children in San Cristobal are drinking milk, and children in communities are drinking soda.

Casa Vegano Sol

I’m staying at a guest house called Casa Vegano Sol. The owners encourage guests to keep a vegetarian kitchen and while they are not completely vegan, they aim their diet in that direction. Their son eats vegan at home and only drinks the milk that he receives at school. Indeed, Mexico has an extensive “Desayunos Escolares” program of which milk is a main component. In fact, the precursor to Desayunos Escolares was a program called La Gota de Leche – “The Drop of Milk”.

The couple who own this guest house both grimaced when I told them I was here to study Liconsa, a social program that distributes milk to vulnerable populations. We’ve spoken a bit about food in Mexico and I’m looking forward to hearing more of their observations around the food system in Chiapas. The wife is from San Cristobal, so it will be especially interesting to hear more from her about changes since her childhood in the city and surrounding communities, where much of her family lives.

This is a picture, badly taken I realize, of the husband painting a sign advertising vegan tacos. He is helping out an older lady who lives nearby and who will start selling vegan tacos next week. I know how I’ll be helping out the local economy…

And here’s the completed sign.

First post!

Finally starting a blog! My first focus will be my trip to Chiapas, where I arrived today to explore the role of food aid in changing food cultures and the process by which populations adopt the norms of dominant groups.

Like many parts of the world, Mexico does not have a strong tradition of milk consumption. Cattle was introduced by the Spanish, but during the colonial era milk consumption did not spread to much of the country, which remained largely indigenous. Current American and European cultural and economic influence is quickening a shift to dairy-rich diets. During my trip, I aim to look at the role of food aid in this process.

Since the 1940s, the Mexican government has been subsidizing the distribution of milk to vulnerable populations, especially children and pregnant or nursing mothers. Around the world, milk distribution has been a hugely significant driver of cultural changes around milk consumption, serving to normalize milk as part of one’s daily diet. This process is especially apparent today in East and South-East Asia.

Chiapas is a largely indigenous state in the south of Mexico that has had relatively little integration into “Mestizo” Mexican culture. It is undeniable that Western consumption habits have recently gained a firm hold in Mexico and processed foods and animal products are very prevalent. Mexico has even surpassed the US in per capita soda consumption – and has the diabesity numbers to show for it. Whether Mexico is therefore still a good place for this study is a question I’ll have to answer – has dairy already become completely normal and commonplace?

For now, my sense is that along with the colonization of local food systems by Big Ag, the positioning of dairy as a dietary cornerstone is still unfinished business. And so far, anecdotal evidence seems to confirm this. For example, a woman who has worked in Chiapanecan communities told me of seeing indigenous women give donated milk to their dogs, because “they don’t drink milk”. In San Francisco, I interviewed a young migrant from Yucatan who related how his mom started pushing him to drink milk when he was around the age of 18, for only then had she become exposed to public messaging regarding its importance.

Like other populations that do not traditionally consume milk, indigenous Mexicans have high rates of lactose intolerance. Given this, the heavy focus on milk in social programs raises further questions on ethnocentrism, normativity and the relationship of people to the norms of dominant groups. I’ll start to explore all if this here!

Welcome, and feel free to contact me with your questions and feedback.