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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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.

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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…
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And here’s the completed sign.
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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.

 

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