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.

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