Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Piece of Mind: Flores’s ‘Modern’ Food Crisis

Piece of Mind: Flores’s ‘Modern’ Food Crisis
Laine Berman | March 21, 2011

Flores is one of my favorite places on earth — a small tropical island in eastern Indonesia with cool weather, amazing mountains and scenery, fabulous beaches and abundant greenery, including things to pick up and eat everywhere. One never goes hungry in Flores — or so I thought.

On this particular trip, I was in Flores evaluating two area NGOs that have implemented a project to help rural people provide home-care for their children with disabilities. Keep in mind, this is a very poor, isolated region. The villages we visited do not yet have electricity or access roads (we had to drive for hours on rutted trails and get out and walk when the passable roads ended). Houses have no permanent walls or floors, no bathing or toilet facilities and no furniture beyond a woven mat for sleeping or sitting.

There are no health services, almost no literacy and, amazingly, no food, or so I was told.

The NGO I was working with said these people were malnourished and only ate cassava. So when we scheduled our visit to these mountain communities, I requested that our hosts not buy any food to serve us and cook only ingredients they had harvested from their own gardens. So they did.

And we ate very well indeed. Instead of white rice bought at great expense several hours away in town shops, they made a delicious black rice that turned a beautiful dark purple when cooked. It is grown in fields, not paddies, with seeds handed down from one generation to the next.

They also prepared some amazingly tasty vegetable and egg dishes with pumpkin, papaya leaves and flowers as well as a delicious sambal. They even made a dish out of a butchered pig, which I didn’t partake of. Even though I am vegetarian, I usually ask my hosts to prepare a meat dish anyway because it is rare that they get the chance to eat meat without a special occasion.

So with such fabulous food, why on earth are their children malnourished?

Turns out, most of the amazingly tasty and healthy food served to me is grown to feed their pigs — not themselves or their children.

Somehow, these supposedly isolated villages have been infected by “modern” ideas that they should serve white rice (which has no fiber and few vitamins, just lots of carbohydrates) at each meal, along with instant noodles — locally considered a vegetable.

Babies are fed instant porridge, a processed food very high in sugar. Just add water — that may or may not be potable. Thus their children grow up addicted to sugar, since exceptionally sweet foods are what they are accustomed to.

Moms tell me that their children demand — and get — packaged sweets daily, rather than substantial meals, which they often refuse to eat.

Evidence of the widespread consumption of these packaged foods is seen everywhere you look, with wrappers tossed on the ground, in the ditches and on the floors, wherever.

Cassava will grow anywhere with little effort, so that is what these people mostly rely on to fend off hunger pains. While everyone has chickens, they told me that eggs cause asthma and that pregnant women and children should not eat them. Everyone has chickens, and many raise pigs and cows, but they are only butchered for special occasions and ceremonies — never for more mundane nutritional purposes.

Since maternal mortality rates are among the highest in the region, women intentionally undereat when pregnant in order to have small babies, thereby increasing their own chances of survival. Fetal malnutrition results in a very high rate of mental and physical disabilities. Since life is so hard here, even for the healthiest babies, severely deformed children are usually allowed to die. Horrible as it is, I can actually understand why they would do that.

How can I, as a sporadic visitor, hope to help these people re-evaluate their destructive practices? When did “modern” start being defined as nothing more than consumerism ignorant of tradition and even basic knowledge of health and safety?

I am painfully aware of my own status in these villages as an honored guest and my ability to give alternative examples through my actions. Hence, I always sit and talk with village elders and youth alike to demonstrate my own intense respect for their wisdom, their knowledge of the foods found in the surrounding forests and their natural desire to protect the fields, rivers and forests, which they believe are home to holy spirits. It’s not likely to have much impact, but it is better than doing nothing and not raising any concerns about how and why these destructive changes are happening.

Laine Berman is a freelance writer based in Yogyakarta.

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