We launched a new series last week called Cheeseburgers and The Church: the health message. If you missed the introduction article, be sure to read it! Today is part two and is written by Kristina DeMuth.
Big Food and the faith communities.
How can the two possibly be connected?
I asked myself the same thing a year ago… and that’s when my life changed.
It was last year at this time that I was living and volunteering as a dietitian in Haiti. Like many low resource areas of the world, Haiti has vast environmental constraints (e.g. deforestation), and extreme cases of poverty and malnutrition. During my time in Haiti, I was working with a small community just outside of Port-au-prince (the capital) to help enhance micronutrient intake of the children by utilizing native foods and increasing diet diversity.
Many places I traveled throughout the city, I would see signs for sugar-sweetened beverages (e.g. COKE and 7-up). Corner stores and vendors filled with highly processed, imported foods (e.g. candy, chips). I would find myself picking up wrappers and containers around our community and reading the ingredient labels the best I could—artificial dyes, added sugars, trans fat, and chemicals I have never heard of. Many of these products coming from America and other wealthier countries. Unfortunately, it was easier to find a bottle of pop than fresh water. Processed foods were made highly available compared to the local, fresh produce (that I greatly enjoyed and preferred).
Being bombarded with advertisement and sales of processed, imported junk and American white rice was incredibly heartbreak especially when all things considered--- malnutrition is prominent in this country, many people don’t have basic health care, and people are poor without much money to spare. When money is spent on these foods with the little money that they do have, it is ultimately going back to Big Food business in a “developed” country rather than into the hands of the local, small farmers (who are some of the poorest people in the world!!!).
When I returned from Haiti, I started doing more research and investigating the role politics plays in our global food supplies. It was never a concept that had been important to me before. Because really, how could MY food choices in the United States be impacting the lives of people in other countries?
I was in disbelief.
I picked- up a few resources-- "Uncomfortably Unaware" by Richard Oppenlander, "Food Politics" by Marion Nestle, and “Out of Poverty” by Paul Polak. I also stumbled upon Food Empowerment Project and learned about the work Oxfam was doing with their “Behind the Brands” campaign. ....AND IT HIT ME.
Food is about power. It’s about an unequal distribution of resources. It’s about politics. Yes, it is about nutrition… but more than anything food is about systems and power.
The Hershey chocolate bar, the cereal in the cupboard, the Coke/Pepsi/ Evian waterin the fridge... all of these products are apart of a system MUCH larger than made visible at the cash register.
In many of the poorest areas of the world, Big Food companies have brought their industry. As my mother always reminds me, assume positive intent of people. I am sure, like many people, Big Food saw these as opportunities to bring business to other countries and provide jobs. BUT what we know from research and advocate groups is that these, perhaps, good intentions are DESTROYING cultural groups and systems.
Women and children being enslaved--- being paid unjust wages with poor working conditions. Farmers are being forced off their land to grow monocrops (e.g. planting just sugar cane) rather than food for their families. Deforestation and environmental issues are only exacerbated from the destruction of forest for farming purposes. For example, cattle ranching has contributed to 70% destruction of the Amazon rainforest (Americans have been huge consumers of this beef). The destruction of the forest not only destroyed vital eco-systems, but it further has displaced over 90 native tribes of PEOPLE (Facts from Uncomfortably Unaware).
Imagine for just a second that someone decided to destroy your home, your neighborhood, and the sacred place where your ancestors lived? Or perhaps that you were a young child SOLD to the chocolate industry, unable to go to school, never able to see your family, paid very little and maybe even WHIPPED for not working fast enough (More on the Chocolate Industry, and My post here).
“When people eat chocolate, they are eating my flesh” – Lauren Ornelas's Tedtalk
Human slavery exists in the 21st century. Poor people, women, and children around the world are working to make the wealthier people “luxurious” foods…. (and sometimes these foods are even being marketed back to the people who are enslaved making them....).
As a faith community, how can we sit back and pretend that human slavery in the 21st century isn’t happening? How can we ignore the fact that our precious earned American dollars ARE SUPPORTING HUMAN SLAVERY, HUMAN POVERTY, AND DESTRUCTION OF CULTURAL GROUPS when we continue to purchase products made from Big Food industries that aren’t working to address these issues. As my friends and I always say, “VOTE WITH YOUR MONEY.” … and raise your voice.
For how much money these companies spend MARKETING their products to you, they could be working to really improve the conditions for which many of these poor people live. Working to enhance ecosystems and communities rather than destroying them.
If I am not mistaken, the only time Americans (generally speaking) stop to think about the lives of people in low resource areas of the world is when they hear about disasters on the news, or when major famine and war plague a country. People react and send their money, pack food at hunger relief organizations… and then they carry on with their daily lives. Occasionally, praying for those living in poverty and praying for world peace. And then the typical American wakes-up in the morning, eats a bowl of Frosted Flakes or Cheerios, drinks milk from conventional cows, eats a few Pringles, Oreos, and a pepsi for lunch, has a Snickerbars for a snack, eats a big steak for dinner, and polishes of the day with a little Ben & Jerry’s (more on Behind the Brands here, more on factory farming here). Again, prayers are said, money is sent to a relief organization… and people continue on with their lives WITHOUT ever thinking that their food purchases and the companies that produced their food has contributed to the cycle of poverty and the destruction of human dignity... for the very same people that are only thought about when their stories make headlines because of tragic deaths and natural phenomenons.
While we sit and dine in “luxury”, we support human slavery. We support the destruction of ecosystems, climate change, and poverty.
We are just comfortably unaware.
AND that’s a slap in the face.
So what can we do about it?
Learning about these issues has impacted me both professionally and personally. I've worked along side people in Haiti-- I have seen extreme poverty. I have smelt poverty. I have touched poverty. I care passionately about people in poverty. AND since I care about these issues, it has helped me to want to better understand how MY OWN personal food choices impact larger systems and lives... CHANGING THE WAY I EAT (because this happens on a daily basis) MAY POTENTIALLY HAVE BIGGER IMPLICATIONS FOR THOSE LIVING IN POVERTY THAN SENDING RELEF MONEY OR SIMPLY JUST SAYING PRAYERS.
I am continually working to find better products for my own consumption (e.g. fairtrade, local farmers markets), educating myself about food politics, food systems, climate change....and inspiring others to (hopefully) do as well. Because at the end of the day, OUR CHOICES MATTER. We can either sit back and allow these things (e.g. child slavery, landgrabs) to happen, or we can do something about it (e.g. boycott--aka vote with your money, petition/ protest, demand fairtrade).
AND ultimately, we can turn PRAYERS into ACTION.
In good health,