Last Week’s News: Are You Hungry?
Food has been all over my radar lately. I’m a little notorious for always being hungry…well, notorious for always saying that I’m hungry. Aside from just being bored at times, I frequently forget to eat. I get engrossed in whatever I’m doing and then suddenly I’ll glance at a timepiece and realize that it’s been hours since I’ve eaten. But there have also been times when I’ve had intense cravings for particular kinds of food. If that craving couldn’t be satisfied, I’d complain that there wasn’t any food to eat. The times when my father was around to hear this tantrum, his usual comment was, “You’ve never been truly hungry.” This would annoy the daylights out of me; what the hell did he mean by I was never hungry, of course I’d been. With hindsight and experience though, I realize that he was right, of course. I have never been truly hungry. I’ve only known what it’s like to not be able to fulfill my want of food not my need for it.
Food has been all over the news: an E.coli outbreak in western Europe (blame now assigned to tainted bean sprouts but first foisted upon tomatoes and — gasp — cucumbers), the U.S. Department of Agriculture rejecting that dreadful food pyramid in favor or a plate emphasizing fruits and vegetables, and reporting on the price of bread in Mozambique. It’s stories like the latter that have caught my attention. For months now.
I believe that the stark truth is that we’re experiencing a growing and persistent hunger crisis.
Terms like “food security” (or rather, insecurity, no?) and “food crisis” are often used in these reports. The former addresses the root causes of hunger: poverty, poor or outdated farming practices, farming subsidies, drought, floods, water scarcity, climate change, population growth or overcrowding to name a few. All of these are valid issues that must be addressed but attention (e.g. genetically modified grain, better agricultural practices, food subsidies) to those issues should not mask the bare truth: too many people are hungry. We’ve already seen the effects of this food crisis: the uprising in Tunisia (though Algeria was really where “it” began). The uprising and subsequent overthrow of the government was sparked by the self-immolation of a young, educated Tunisian whose fruit stand was closed and confiscated by a policewoman, but the pressures leading toward that revolution were already bubbling…and one of the specific grievances of the protesters was rising food prices. Consequently, one of the measures that the Ben Ali government tried to placate the protesters with was to increase food subsidies. By then it was too late, the list of grievances too long, and the apparent thirst for democracy too strong. Other North African and Middle Eastern leaders took note and either kept or increased food subsidies (Bahrain’s King has tried and so far the protests are ongoing if less intense…even Mubarak tried but that didn’t work eh).
A hungry man is an angry man, and that hunger can (and does?) sharpen one’s focus and demands about other things.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates (as of 2010) that though there has been some decline, there are 925 million people are undernourished (that is the standard for assessing whether someone is hungry). That’s almost ONE BILLION people. Hungry. Can’t afford to eat even the basics. That cannot be right. The breakdown is staggering: 578 million live in Asia & the Pacific and 239 million live in sub-Saharan Africa; 53 million live in Latin America and the Caribbean. I won’t even get into the socioeconomics and politics of hunger (*cough* agricultural subsidies *cough*)…or the social impacts of hunger. OK wait: Women make up a little over half of the world’s population, but they account for over 60 percent of the world’s hungry and 10.9 million children under five die in developing countries each year. Malnutrition and hunger-related diseases cause 60 percent of the deaths. More stats to put this perspective for you? Click here.
Yet this is a problem that many of us never will confront…many never thought they would ever confront being hungry. (But do you remember USA for Africa?) That was, until, the recession began in late 2007/early 2008. I know that one of the first indicators for me that something was wrong was my food bill: it went insane so I started paying close attention to what I was buying. So far, my food bill has not gone down.
That’s all the macro level stuff…what can individuals do to address this problem?
First, take responsibility for what you eat. I think that one of the easiest things one can do is take better note of what you eat and start growing or making it yourself. I don’t mean that you have to start an agrobusiness but there are some basic things that you use often that you can grow for yourself. In my apartment, I’m getting ready to start a small garden…yes, in my apartment. That’s what those plant stands and planter boxes are for. Of course, the idea of planting a small area – a kitchen garden – to grow food regularly used by the family isn’t new. Ask your grandparents, aunts, uncles or, if they’re still around, your great grandparents. Actually, ask your parents. It is likely that their households had small plots for food. I know that it’s something Jamaica Observer food columnist Jacqui Sinclair (Juicy Chef) has been strongly recommending in her columns: eat from your garden. The idea of growing your own food should not be alien to Jamaicans (or other Caribbean people, for that matter). Many Jamaican yards were home to fruit trees (my grandparents home in which I grew up had mangoes, sweetsop, ackee, soursop, pomegranate…and neighbours had grapes, tamarind and bananas). And we lived in Kingston town. For years my uncle in New York had a kitchen garden where he grew peppers, tomatoes, and callaloo.
Recently, my mother has started to be more organized about planing her garden. With help from other family members she’s been consistent about planting foods that she uses often…this really didn’t surprise me too much since she grew up farming with her grandmother, and often expressed a desire to focus more on that. So far she’s grown sorrel, celery, gungo peas, broccoli, pumpkin (which does really well), tomatoes, parsley and various other herbs and seasonings, callaloo, sweet peppers, scotch bonnet peppers, and bananas. She’s found that the easiest crops to grow are callaloo, sweet peppers, scotch bonnet pepper, and herbs and seasonings (like thyme and scallion).
Resident troublemaker on my timeline @ProdigalJa has a kitchen garden and his number one tip (echoing my mother’s experience) is to grow what you actually like to use and eat regularly because you’ll pay more attention and take better care of the plants (weeding, harvesting, fertilizing, watering). Also pay attention to how sunlight hits different areas of your yard since different plants need different amounts of sunlight. Along with these observations, plant different brands and types of seeds to see which work best for your conditions. Though it takes more time and effort, he strongly suggests planting seeds in trays to nurture them into healthy seedlings before transplanting them into your garden. It’s more likely that the plant will thrive. (Thanks, for the tips D )
If you absolutely cannot or don’t want to go this route of having a kitchen garden then I suggest that you start going to farmers’ markets (these are usually one day a week, often on the weekend) or to the regular market. In my experience the produce lasts a lot longer, is fresher amd less processed, and is cheaper. In the DC Metro area there is the FRESHFARM Markets and in Jamaica RADA has recently run a series of farmers’ markets to prevent product from spoiling. I hope that RADA – or others – make the farmers’ markets more frequent. (Why does RADA have to defend itself? Ugh.)
Along with growing what you eat often or going to markets for produce, it’s also very helpful for you to actually make the things that you eat regularly. Last weekend I made granola – really simple to do – because I eat it a lot. I ended making 3x as much as the package I used to buy for about the same price as that smaller package. How? I went to Whole Foods, which allows you to buy grains and nuts according to how much you need.
You can also step out into your community to help feed those who do not have these options, or even the ability to simply go to the supermarket. Because of the recession food banks in the DC area note a rise in the use of their services. In the DC area there’s Capital Area Food Bank. In Jamaica, Food for the Poor is always welcoming help. Your food donation doesn’t have to be a huge shopping bag of things but a few cans added to your grocery shopping can really make a difference for a family that is struggling. You can also get busy with serving meals. In the DC area there is Martha’s Table and The Shepherd’s Table. I remember seeing The Love Kitchen on Oprah; 2 beautiful twin sisters who feed the hungry in the Knoxville, TN area. In Jamaica there is iFED1 at Christmastime but I don’t know of any services (perhaps aside from Food for the Poor) that provide meals year round. Maybe a way to address that issue is to work through your church, office, community, group of friends, school; find an organization that needs help and plan how you can help then do it. (I’m sure that a simple Google search for similar resources in your area will show you where your help is needed.)
Of course – and a favourite of mine – is advocacy. Everything from signing a petition to joining letter writing campaigns is useful. There is the 1Billion
Hungry campaign as well as Bread for the World. Bread for the World, for example, is running a letter writing campaign to the U.S. Congress about the push to cut the budget…many of those budget cuts will severely affect the most vulnerable people in the U.S. population. O yes, hunger is a serious issue in this country as well: in 2007 1 in 9 were hungry and by 2009 (as the recession deepened) that figure had risen to 1 in 7. For children, it’s worse at 1 in 5. Summertime is a particularly difficult time for many familieis since children no longer get the benefit of school feeding programs (setting aside the issues with the quality of those meals). Who knows what it’s like as the recession has gotten even worse.
So, are you hungry? Really hungry? I don’t mean to guilt trip you at all but I do mean to open your eyes to something many of us have likely been blind to for too long. There are many links in this post, a lot of information and resources. Take some time to read a bit and then start taking action…be responsible for yourself and, I hope, see what you can do for some others who need your help.