I really like food. I think about food a lot. Perhaps that is partly a result of spending a good portion of my life eating, cooking, and planning meals. I’ve also spent most of my life growing food both for me and my family and for others.
Some of my current preoccupation with food might stem from my efforts to shed the pounds that have crept up on me since the birth of my second daughter. The “baby fat” excuse is a feeble one, I admit. My daughter is 33 years old. Whatever the cause, my youthful ability to eat anything, in any amounts and still weigh a little over 100 pounds is just a distant memory. Sometimes I think I gain weight simply watching the Food channel. I know that when I diet, my husband loses more weight than I do.
I have made a sincere attempt to turn around the last thirty years of slowly becoming a bigger person. I monitor the calories I consume and try to at least match the intake with the calories burned. The second half of that equation is harder when I’m at my desk doing bookkeeping and writing and at my sewing machine working. When I’m not out chasing sheep, mowing grass and gardening, I burn far fewer calories. Perhaps restricting calories has made food even more appealing. I am even more obsessed by food than I usually am. Every magazine I pick up seems to fall open to some delicious desert recipe, pasta dish, or sauce for something. Still, my meals while dieting are nutritious and good tasting. I am not deprived.
Last week the Overseas Development Institute published a study that indicates that obesity is now becoming a growing problem for the poor, not only in this country, but around the world. Since 1980 the number of people in developing nations who are considered overweight has tripled. That might be good news. It means that more people have access to adequate calories. Or, it might be not all good news since being overweight creates different problems. It would seem that some of the weight gain in places like Korea and Mexico come from increased sugar consumption. Obviously we need to have more in our diet than calories. The health problems that come with obesity might be as much related to what is missing in a high calorie diet than the number of calories. High calorie, low nutrition foods tend to be cheap and easily accessible even in food scarce areas.
Simply increasing calories does not solve poor people’s food problems. In many places traditional, diverse diets have been replaced by foods high in refined sugars, white flour and processed foods. The changes have to do with loss of biodiversity and small farms, availability of locally grown greens and legumes and loss of access to land and traditional knowledge. Hunger is a complex problem only partly solved by increasing calories.
It has been a year since I spent a week in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. I saw very few Haitians who would meet the definition of being overweight. Many of the children suffer from inadequate nutrition, even if most have enough calories to get by. Their lack of nutrition is shown in skin disorders, infections, and impaired resistance to disease. Their malnutrition is made worse by drinking contaminated water and the resulting parasite and intestinal infections. The few overweight Haitians we saw at our health clinic suffered from untreated high blood pressure along with symptoms of inadequate nutrition in spite of their obesity.
The country of Haiti exports a sugar cane, coffee, tobacco, cotton, rice and mangoes. The island has the potential to be a tropical paradise. Almost all the food eaten in the country is imported. The once productive soil has been eroded and exploited. The forests are gone. Someone living in a tent with a few inches of space between it and the next tent cannot grow their own food. Most of the people of Haiti live in coastal cities and are unemployed or work only occasionally. There is no safety net and feeding programs funded by and administered by nonprofit agencies are spotty and local. While many of these charitable efforts work on a small scale, others are poorly organized and inadequate.
Yes, fewer people may starve for lack of enough calories today than they did 30 years ago. That is good news. My guess is that the statistics don’t tell the whole story. The very poorest are still starving. The overweight poor are still undernourished. There are those of us who suffer ill health and obesity in the middle of abundance.
Something to think about next time I reach for a snack.
Copyright © 2014 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains