Friday, October 30, 2009

The Food Security Volunteer’s Dilemma

My charge as a Peace Corps Volunteer in rural Nicaragua is to work to improve the food security of the people in my community. One way to do that is to use food that would normally go to waste and process it into products that can be sold either here in this town or in one of the larger cities nearby. Assuming that the farmers are able to plant vegetables this season (we’ve been suffering from a terrible drought that has nearly dried up the river that the farmers use to water their crops), a goal of mine is to take all the tomatoes and peppers that can’t be sold in the market and turn them into sauces. We can make tomato sauce and pepper sauce and salsa and ketchup. I’d like to even teach some people to make pizza. There are a lot of bakers in my town, and selling slices could be a great business. In addition to having other sources of income, I’d like to encourage people to add more variety to their diets – above all to incorporate more vegetables and fruits. I’m excited about finding all kinds of value-added products that people can make and sell – jams, jellies, sauces, dried fruits, herb teas, etc.

But things here start slowly. So far I’m working on building enough confianza – trust – to be able to propose such projects. One of the easiest ways I’ve found to get to know people is to come and cook with them in their homes. In the past three months, I’ve made a ton of banana bread, some oatmeal raisin cookies, and even some sweet potato pancakes (those were really delicious). I’ve also taught a lot of people how to make soy milk and soy meat. A couple of weeks ago I made a first attempt at a value-added product. A group of women I’ve been cooking with decided to try to make orange marmalade – it’s orange season, and so oranges are practically free – and sell it at the school.

We washed and peeled the oranges, we boiled the peels and added the pulp. And then it was time to add the sugar. We put in a little bit at first, then each person tasted it, and after each tasting we added more. And more. And more. At the end what we had was more sugar than orange. Which I guess is fine; that’s what marmalade and jelly and jam are all about, I suppose. But what was really appalling to me was how people wanted to eat it. When I said “orange marmalade”, I was thinking of something that you spread on bread or crackers, something that you use in small amounts. When the women I was working with said “mermelada”, they were thinking of something that you eat by the spoonful, like jello.

At the end, as I watched the women I had worked with enjoying their creation and talking about selling it to their children and their children’s friends, I felt disheartened. What am I doing besides finding more creative ways for people to eat sugar and white flour and grease? The honest truth is that almost nothing I cook with people would I actually cook for myself - deep fried banana pancakes saturated with sugar, treacly soy milk (4 tablespoons of sugar to the glass), soy burgers dripping with oil, marmalade so sweet I can feel my teeth rotting just taking a single bite. Maybe there’s some sweet potato buried in the greasy pancake, but does eating more pancakes really helping anyone’s food security situation?

So here’s my dilemma: I can either present the kind of food I believe is healthy – whole grains, low sugar, high fiber, lots of veggies, nothing deep fried – and have people dislike it, or I can present the white flour, sugary, salty, grease-laden version and maybe slowly start to coax people to work more veggies and fruits into the mix. For now, I’ve made my choice, but I still don’t feel entirely comfortable with it.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Michael Pollan and Nicaragua

As you might imagine, I live in somewhat of a media dead zone. The only time I get caught up on the news is when I am sick enough to merit a hotel stay. Then I can watch CNN and the BBC to my heart’s content. But thanks to my wonderful friends, I am receiving a fairly consistent supply of good magazines, so at least I’m getting high quality media, even if it is old news by the time I get it. Recently I received a New York Times Magazine (August 2, 2009) from one of my aforementioned wonderful friends. The magazine contained an article by Michael Pollan bemoaning the state of American cookery. In it, Pollan plots the trajectory of American cooking from 1963 to the present. Basically, he says, over that period Americans have been cooking less and less, eating more and more processed food, and spending more time watching cooking shows on TV than we spend in our own kitchens.

Pollan links these patterns to the rise in obesity in America. At one point he sites research that shows, “the more time a nation devotes to food preparation at home, the lower its rate of obesity. In fact, the amount of time spent cooking predicts obesity rates more reliably than female participation in the labor force or income.” The average American, he says, now spends only 27 minutes per day cooking. Another study finds that “the rise of food preparation outside the home could explain most of the increase in obesity in America.”

Now I’m not one to hate on Michael Pollan. But I look around me, and I wonder, What gives? I don't know any statistics on obesity in Nicaragua, but from my informal observation there is definitely a problem here. Many of my community members have diabetes, and by visual inspection, a majority of women over 15 are very overweight. A lot of men and children are too. Yet, none of what Pollan talks about in his article applies to rural Nicaragua. People here eat very little processed food; they are too poor to afford potato chips. And women here spend all day cooking. Every day they make tortillas, which involves manually taking the corn grains off of the cob, boiling them and stirring vigorously to remove the hull, walking to the mill to grind the corn, and then patting out each tortilla by hand. The whole process probably occupies about three hours out of every day, more than six times as much time as Americans are spending cooking. And that's just for one food item.

At one point in his article, Pollan quotes a food marketing research who says, “A hundred years ago, chicken for dinner meant going out and catching, killing, plucking, and gutting a chicken. Do you know anybody who still does that? It would be considered crazy!” Maybe in the US, but here that’s still the way people prepare chicken. Nobody in my community knows what a Happy Meal is; they’ve never eaten a TV dinner or a microwave pizza. Not only is the bulk of the food people eat not processed, they actually grow it themselves. And there are definitely no cooking shows.

The weight problem here is something that Peace Corps Volunteers talk about a lot, in large part because we (especially female volunteers) want to figure out how to avoid getting really fat ourselves. In what I believe is a holdover from the Atkins days, many volunteers blame the high-carb diet. Indeed, it is not uncommon for meals to be composed solely of carbohydrates. On a single plate you might find potatoes, rice, beans, tortillas, and plantains. But people here have been eating starch this way for hundreds of years, and I doubt obesity and diabetes were as big a problem 100years ago as they are now. Other hypotheses include a lack of fresh fruits and vegetables, an abundance of fried food, the effect of childbearing on women’s bodies, and lack of exercise (this does not apply to most men, who work in the fields).

I’ve been wondering about it since I got here five months ago, and the other day I was given a food product that I felt perfectly encapsulated what must have happened to the Nicaraguan diet. The food item in question is called a nuegano, and it is a large, thin, piece of deep-fried white flour, topped with a simple syrup made from white sugar and water. As I ate this piece of greasy deliciousness, I realized that none of its ingredients are indigenous to this diet, and all of them are processed outside of the home, unlike the rest of what people here eat. In fact, I realized, the only things people here eat in large quantities that they don’t themselves process all the way from farm to table, are sugar, flour, and oil. And those things are cheap and delicious. So even though the women are still spending the time cooking, these new ingredients are wreaking havoc on their health and the health of their families.

I think Michael Pollan makes a great point when it comes to American food culture, but based on what I’ve observed here, a decline in time spent cooking is incomplete as an explanation for America’s obesity epidemic. The pithy end to Pollan’s article is a quote from the same food marketing researcher who talked about the chicken. “Here’s my diet plan: Cook it yourself. That’s it. Eat anything you want – just as long as you’re willing to cook it yourself.” But if my experience in Nicaragua is any indication, it will take more than returning to the kitchen to solve America’s food problems.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Tuesday in Esteli

I am in the habit of writing a poem about once every 2 to 3 years. I wrote one the other day, right on schedule - I think the last time was in 2006 - and I thought I would put it up here.

1. At least here it's not so g-d hot.
In Managua it hurt to go out
at midday. So I stayed in, reading
trashy novels, reclining on a
leatherette couch, slick and brown and cool.
The bus ride north was a slow ascent
through wispy clouds spritzing a fine mist.
Seven dollars and fifty-six cents,
or almost two-hundred cordobas,

2. will buy you a night in a clean place
with tile floors and a working TV.
For a strong cup go down the street. The
cafe is called The Light of the Moon,
in Spanish of course. A bacon egg
sandwich reminds me that this is not
America, as if I could have
forgotten. Gringos read guidebooks and
plan their next moves. I am planning mine

3. too. Dawdling in Esteli stop me
thinking about how alone I am
in my site, a tiny town too small
to even be called a village. It's
a pueblo - a pueblito, una
- of seven hundred.
There are no fruits or vegetables there,
which continues to surprise me. But
everything about Nicaragua

4. surprises me: How do the women
get so fat on rice and beans? And who
ever heard of riding six deep on
a rickety bicycle? What do
the dogs eat? Beans and rice, just like the
people. In this country I have learned
how rich I really am. On less than
ten American dollars I can
live comfortably for a whole week.

5. It hasn't rained in over a month.
Even as they laugh, the farmers wring
calloused hands. Even as they proffer
red beans, tortillas, coajada, the
women secretly wonder - is there
enough to make it until next year?
Who am I in the face of such a
calamity? With my salary
and my American bank account.

6. "I'll just join the Peace Corps" is something
you hear people say. Once they've signed up,
then what? The glamor is minimal,
I can promise you that much. Though time
does stretch out languorously in front
of you. Two years in a grass hut, or
a zinc-roofed cottage or a yurt will
teach you certain things about yourself,
some you might not want to know. But your

7. gratitude will save you. Or that is
my hope. A crappy bacon sandwich
and a cup of coffee are sometimes
all you need. An afternoon in a
foreigner cafe restores a sense
that one has had other lives and will
continue to accumulate more.
A chocolate bar, however grainy,
is still, after all, a chocolate bar.

8. With gratitude I eat the red beans,
the salty fresh cheese, the palmed out corn.
But I relish the days I can spent
not feeling responsible, the nights
in hotels, with pizza delivered.
It's not good pizza, but it's OK.
I was reading The New Yorker when
I found a poem written in nine-
syllable lines, nine lines, nine stanzas.

9. So I decided to write one, just
to pass time in this cafe, over
an egg-toast-bacon sandwich and a
cup of coffee, milk not included.
The bus leaves at half past one. I'll be
home by three. But how I wish for one
more night with fresh clean sheets and cable
television. Tonight it's back to
the mosquito net. Oh, lucky me.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Project Update

A lot of development organizations work in the Nicaraguan countryside. Most of the time, they come through with tangible things to give out to people – a new latrine, materials for a garden, a pregnant cow, water barrels, even houses (e.g. the house I live in). The Peace Corps does not give out anything. We come with just our experience, our time, and our willingness to work. More than anything else, we are community organizers. Our job is to help the community get organized so that it can take on projects without outside assistance. I believe in the Peace Corps’s philosophy. But when every other gringo who comes through is handing out goodies, it makes my job pretty tough.

For example, I want to continue the sewing group that the last volunteer started. There are about twelve women who received sewing classes. However, there are only two machines between the twelve of them on which to practice. I am trying to get the group to pool its resources – maybe start a small savings bank, or hold bake sales, or whatever – to raise the money for more machines. It’s been hard to get anyone to commit to working on this project, though. Most of the women in the group are convinced that the only way to continue with the sewing is for the mayor’s office to give each woman a sewing machine. I’m not buying it. But everything must go at a Nicaraguan pace, which is to say, slowly. So for the time being, the group is going just meeting every week or so to do something – next week we’re making orange marmalade – with whoever happens to show up that day. I’m hoping that over time a committed group will emerge and that one of these little projects will turn into a small business proposition which we can use to raise money for the machines.

Another example: several weeks ago the mayor’s office asked that all the communities affiliated with this municipality make a list of community priorities. Two of the items on the list my community made were loans for women and financing for farmers. Great, I thought, here’s something I can really help out with. Part of my training was on how to start up a small community bank. Basically, each person brings a certain amount of money each week (the amount is determined by the group), and then that money is made available for small loans for a period of time and at an interest rate also determined by the group. At the end of the loan cycle – usually six months to a year – the money is divided up evenly or reinvested in a community project. It’s a great way to foster a culture of saving, which is decidedly absent in the Nicaraguan countryside.

My idea was that we could form two banks in the community - one for women and one for producers. The producers’ bank could ultimately turn into a seed bank. By next planting season we would have enough money to invest in disease-resistant seeds, which the farmers could take as loans and repay in kind at harvest time. When I held a meeting to discuss the idea, some people seemed interested. Mostly what they said, though, was that the mayor’s office or an NGO really should be giving the women interest-free loans. The federal government should be giving the seeds to farmers. Some people reluctantly agreed to come to a second meeting to form a bank, but on the day of the meeting no one showed up. Supposedly we’re going to try again this Friday, but I’m not holding my breath.

I’ve never been a super gung-ho capitalist, and I believe in the duty of a society to take care of its poorest members. Still, the longer I am here the more aware I become of my American capitalistic values, my entrepreneurial spirit. Everywhere I look I see a small business opportunity. Rotting tomatoes? Looks like a ketchup project. Cow poop? Looks like an organic fertilizer business. I also believe in being frugal and saving money. When the community members told me they didn’t have a dollar a week to put into a savings bank, my first thought was, “Okay, but you do have money for popsicles and chips?” I know people are buying them because the wrappers are all over the ground.

Volunteers who have been here longer all say that it takes a good six months to a year to get any bigger projects up and running. I’m trying to be patient. In the meantime, there’s my garden to take care of, my chicken coop to clean out and find chicks for, and lots and lots of books to read.

Into It:
Making super-spicy hot sauce with my neighbor
Eating fresh greens from my garden every day
Going to bed at 7:30pm and sleeping for a luxurious 9 and a half hours a night

Over It:
The heat of the mid-day sun at 12 degrees north latitude
A wasp colony hell-bent on having a home near mine
Cat-calls from the road crew that is currently working outside my front door (but soon there will be a paved road, meaning much shorter bus trips into town. Yay!)