Food & Culture

April 4, 2011 | Comments Off on Food & Culture | Important Causes

Culture and geographic location plays such a role in how we grow, distribute, and eat our food.

Last semester, I had the opportunity to take an international business intro course as a presession, and I found it beyond fascinating (good thing, since that’s one of my majors!). At the end of the course, student groups that had been assigned different major countries (India, China, Russia, etc…) shared presentations about things they’d learned about that country, and we were encouraged to be as creative as we wanted.

Because food is such an integral part of any culture, at least two groups (including mine) brought ethnic foods to share, if I remember correctly, and one brought peanut butter cookies – we were still pleased. Afterwards, several of us went out to Bossa Grill to enjoy some authentic Brazilian fare (another of the countries featured in our presentations).

Even growing up in the middle of KS, I’ve had the opportunity to sample flavors from quite a few different cuisines (and we do have some tasty food originating here too, from Louisburg Apple Cider to great local honey and, of course, wheat). I remember our family making the acquaintance of a couple of gals from Nigeria and inviting them over for dinner once. They brought some yams and another dish from their usual fare and shared with us about their lives back home, their families, food, and culture.

We occasionally shop at the local Asian market, and on a trip to Texas I was thrilled to discover a bakery featuring Argentinean treats. When I visited Seattle I had smoked salmon, Mediterranean fare, and sampled chocolate-covered Washington cherries. And I’ve had friends who’ve traveled abroad and brought back new and interesting (or strange) recipes.

Beyond the huge variety of flavors and food types available out there, another cultural phenomenon connected with food is what constitutes manners in a given locale. Whether or not it is polite to burp, whether one must wait for the host/hostess to begin eating, what portion size is considered normal, whether the men eat first and then women & children or they all eat together, even whether someone is willing to accept a gift of food…all these things are to some degree dictated by culture. And travelers who try to bridge cultures often learn the hard way what is or isn’t acceptable!

Even in the case of Numana, cultural preferences play a role in the types of food we package and send to hungry people. We switched to beans as part of our casserole blend for the Haitians instead of freeze-dried vegetables because that was already a staple there, an acceptable, traditional food for their palettes. And as might be expected, religion plays a role too in what is considered acceptable, so we might, for instance, be sure to avoid beef products and flavorings for Hindus in India, or look for a kosher or non-pork option for Jewish and Muslim people in Eastern Africa and the Middle East. We’re cognizant that tastes differ, and yet strive to maintain a nutritional product.

In many ways, how we eat reflects on our entire lifestyle and upbringing. Whether we learn how to properly eat with multiples of each type of silverware at an early age or our family grew up eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on the go, we carry these perspectives and social customs into our adult lives, to our work environments and social engagements, and we pass them on to our children.

Knowing this, I want to think ahead now, and ponder a bit how I can instill gratefulness and caring in my children someday, how I can introduce them to a wide variety of cultures and cuisines, and how I can teach them to view food as a gift to be savored and shared.

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The Politics of Hunger

April 3, 2011 | Comments Off on The Politics of Hunger | Important Causes

Don’t worry, I’m not planning on making this post some partisan ideological monologue – in fact that’s precisely what I’m writing to discourage.

When I first got involved in the hunger movement, I naively thought I’d picked a nice, safe arena to work in…not too political, not anything anyone would be against, an important issue that anyone could be supportive of, right? Wrong. I quickly learned that things weren’t so simple.

Unfortunately, there have been splits within hunger relief organizations, there are constant debates between whether we should feed people here or there, and food, it turns out, is an incredibly political subject. This is true whether you’re talking about the politics of who supports what measures or you’re talking about which governments allow food aid and how, or you’re getting down to the nitty-gritty of agricultural subsidies and genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

It’s not that I don’t care about politics. I believe strongly in our right and responsibility to vote, the importance of researching issues and being activists for causes we believe in, and being aware on both a local and global scale of what is going on in the legislation and political aspects of hunger and the other issues that affect our lives. But lately I’ve been fed up (no pun intended, sorry – one day I’ll run out of handy food-related phrases) with all the political bashing I’ve seen around this topic. In my opinion it’s getting us nowhere fast.

If the issue is getting people fed, or in this case, not stopping current aid – let’s talk about that, educate about that, and stop the ad hominem attacks on individuals and political parties. I can’t believe that no Democrat wants to balance the budget or that no Republican wants to see poor people get fed. The specific means each group is likely to want to use to reach those goals is very different, yes, but I believe there can be cooperation to reach these shared goals.

I realize I could sound like one of those idealistic college students that just hasn’t lived in the real world long enough to know that people don’t do that, but that’s not quite true. I happen to know there was a day not too many decades back when Senators and Representatives actually ate lunch together and worked towards common goals. I happen to know that former Senators George McGovern and Bob Dole, who belong to the Democrat and Republican parties, respectively, wrote a book together called Ending Hunger Now. And I know that I personally have had the chance to rub shoulders with a number of people who like me, care about hunger, and may be at the complete opposite end of the political spectrum from me on most fronts. I’ve laughed with them, learned from them, and worked with them, and they with me.

To me, if our goal really is to end world hunger, this type of collaboration is key. You don’t win points with people by calling them immoral or stupid and getting others to do the same. There are a number of things we can agree on, I think. Foreign aid is good for foreign security. Foreign aid currently is less than 1% of the Federal Budget. We want to manage our national debt wisely and reduce it so that our children (that means people like me for some of you) don’t have an unbearable burden. We want to support initiatives that are sustainable and don’t hurt our own farmers, but also don’t undermine the ability of another country to provide for itself in the future. We care about hungry people. And we are willing to do what it takes to see the world become a better place, even when that means making tough decisions politically that we believe are right and best.

So call your Senators. Write letters to your Representatives. Fast for the plight of the hungry. But start out thinking the best of these people. Look for ways you can win them over to your point of view, or support them if they already share yours. Imagine for a moment that perhaps they care about the same things you do. Consider what they’re doing right. Tell yourself the cause is for everyone to participate in. Fight your battles with a smile on your face and gracious determination. And never give up.

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The Rationale Behind Rules, Regulations, and Rations

April 1, 2011 | 1 Comments | Important Causes

Last night I had the opportunity to go check out a one-night showing of the documentary “To Catch a Dollar,” featuring Nobel Peace Laureate Muhammad Yunus and the micro-finance organization he helped to found, Grameen, which started in Bangladesh (his home country) and which has been brought to the States as Grameen America, largely focused in New York so far, and looking to expand into other interested communities. Following the main part of the documentary there was footage from a panel on Mar. 9, 2011 that featured Professor Yunus, Suze Orman (financial author), Premal Shah (Kiva), Vidar Jorgensen (Grameen America), and Maria Bartiromo as moderator.

While I found the quality of the video a little lacking in places (a bit jerky and the lighting could have been better), I felt it portrayed a realistic view of micro-lending’s pros and cons both from the perspective of those lending and those receiving the funds. The stories of the characters shone through, and I was moved with emotion as I watched these women struggle, but at the same time begin to rise above their circumstances with the help of microfinance. I was particularly glad to learn more about both Kiva and Grameen, and will certainly be more likely to participate with both organizations in the future. Your funds are repaid or can be reinvested – very cool.

One of the things that stood out to me as someone interested in owning my own brick-and-mortar business in the future, and as someone interested in causes such as these, was the comment made in the film that all the regulations surrounding getting a business off the ground are very inhibitory, in part because they are designed not so much to protect the general public as to help protect the competition. While of course there are various facets to the problem of regulation, I do think this is probably at play.

The question then becomes, how can we change that? What should we do about it? Obviously some regulations and rules are necessary for public safety, for collecting taxes, the whole bit. But how do we turn things around so that people aren’t penalized for trying to be good citizens, for trying to earn something instead of panhandling, for generating income – which is a good thing for society?

All these “R” words have to do with restrictions, and another one I’ve been thinking about today is rations. Like I wrote about yesterday, there’s certainly a case for moderation, but it’s sad when people don’t have enough food to count on for the upcoming week or other time period and have to ration it – and it becomes very easy to hoard.

In disaster relief situations today, the safe, fair distribution of food can also be a challenge. FedEx and UPS both helped deliver the Numana food we sent to be distributed by the Salvation Army for Haiti Earthquake Relief, and the Salvation Army utilized a barcode system that UPS came up with for keeping track of which families had received meals and how often.

I’ve only read stories about both World Wars and the food rationing that occurred, especially in Europe but also here in the States. I haven’t even experienced the same challenges or shortages that my grandparents remember going through. I’ve been thinking about Victory Gardens and the correlation with community gardens. And I’ve been thinking about portions and why we eat the amount that we do in the first place. I had to run some errands today, and I caught myself thinking of stopping at a fast-food restaurant or other food-related shop probably 6 or more times as I was out and about.

And I realized, yes, in one sense I was hungry (my one meal today will be with my family tonight)…but on the other hand, was food really all I had to dream about? Fill my time with? Look forward to? No way! And yet I purchase food almost without thought on a regular basis. I don’t think we have to wait till our stomach is growling and our tummy is aching to eat…but as I think about it, a lot of the time when I eat, I think I do it because I can. Because it tastes good. Because it’s there and I have the funds…maybe even because I’m bored (which seems shocking to me, as I almost always feel busy and happy to be busy).

Bear in mind, I’m not suddenly turning into an advocate for constantly measuring our portions, counting calories, any of that stuff. I think food was designed to be nourishing to our bodies (although unfortunately much of our current food supply is not), enjoyed, and actually not thought about too much, as I stated previously. But when you’re in good health and can and do “eat like a horse,” like me, I think maybe sometimes it’s good to take a second to think “am I really hungry? Do I really need that?” That’s another reason this fast has been good for me – it’s an exercise in self-discipline.

I haven’t been keeping a list of tally marks for each food that I would have gotten had I not been fasting, to stock up on later. In fact, while I went ON this fast cold-turkey, I plan to go off of it more slowly and gradually…and make sure I savor everything as it comes back in. Believe it or not, I may eat more than I did before when I go back (since I’d been skipping breakfast and eating at odd hours)…but I have a hunch I’m going to try to make it better food, find ways to bring food with me to campus, and maybe save the eating out for times with friends.

Whatever I do, it’s important to me that this fast is not just a low point on a food consumption graph this year, but that it actually helps me think, helps me change my habits, and helps me identify with the needy. Those plans get to wait to be implemented on a future date however…sometime after…oh…Monday. For now I get to enjoy the blessing of ONE meal per day…and enjoy it I will!

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Food for Thought

April 1, 2011 | 2 Comments | Important Causes

I’ve made time to blog the past few days, and it’s a very good feeling to be keeping up the trend. And I know, I know…the title is rather cliché given the topic, but I think it’ll still be worth your while. Here are my latest thoughts:

This morning I had a couple pieces of bran bread on my way to campus, and they were good. I quickly felt like I had increased energy and a lighter step, which was great, since I had a test, which I think went well. That feeling lasted the rest of the day, when I didn’t have food, which was also nice. I will mention as a side note that I don’t remember the last time I’ve been offered so much food, and been invited to lunch, AND had all kinds of potential lunch/dinner events come up all at once in a week!

My dad sweetly brought home heart-shaped boxes of Russell Stover’s chocolate for each of us today, and I was immediately torn. This was something I hadn’t planned for when I set up my tentative parameters for my fast. Should I give it away? Save it for later? Enjoy it now? I settled on saving it in this case, but the other day I gave a fruit bar that would have otherwise been allotted to me to a sib, and this evening I decided to treat my sisters to Sonic. In undertaking a hunger fast, why not think a little less about what we’re missing out on and instead focus on how we can use food to the benefit of others?

At Sonic, however, I caught the smell of delicious onion rings. And earlier in the day, after picking me up from college, my family had stopped at McDonald’s for a quick bite, and there too their food smelled SO good. The feeling reminded me of the power of our sense of smell to tantatalize us and in some cases even satiate. I’ve always been amused at how if ever my mom is avoiding a particular food, she’ll ask to smell it, and be quite content with just that.

And this led me to yet another train of thought. Why, when we’re on a fast, do we sometimes feel guilty about being around food? Maybe this hasn’t happened for you, but I know working in the hunger arena, there’s a part of me that always feels a bit hypocritical if I go out to eat after a packaging event, like perhaps I’m “undoing” a bit of the good that was just done, or like maybe if I really cared about hunger, I wouldn’t be eating at a nice restaurant since others can’t.

But to take that thought a bit further, I want to suggest that we analyze our perceptions of hunger and starvation as a whole. For me at least, it’s often easy to think of starvation as happening “over there”…(waving vaguely towards some far-off country)…and to some degree hunger happening here…but not a close here. Not my sibling or my neighbor or my classmate. Some here as in…the United States…this big, nebulous, faceless, vague concept of…a problem. That’s precisely why some organizations show videos and pictures of starving children – to give us a face to the problem and motivate action. But often instead only compassion or pity or horror are aroused instead.

We have to remember the power of one…and not in vague hypotheticals, but in tangible, practical actions. I truly believe that most of us, presented with an honest need, would be willing to take a hungry or impoverished person to lunch with us, given the opportunity. But the problem of hunger usually seems so insolvable that we’re left feeling we’ve made a small dent (which we have) in a vast problem (which it is).

But our collective efforts are what make the difference, because as was reaffirmed over and over again at the Kansas Hunger Dialogue, the problem of hunger is solvable. Because those collective efforts are made up of individuals taking small actions that matter. Like packaging food. Volunteering at a food bank. Researching the problem, or even maybe not eating.

As they say, I think moderation is important in all things. Eating out after a long tiring day of managing volunteers and packaging food makes a lot of sense. And there are a number of other good reasons to enjoy good food without guilt, be it for a birthday celebration, a time of conversation and catching up with a friend, or even sometimes “just because.” Food service providers are just another business in one sense, something that helps drive the economy, and many have taken positive actions to address hunger in their own communities and abroad.

I think the challenge is in finding that balance where there’s no sense of incongruity, because you enjoy food and want others to be able to enjoy it with you and are working towards that end. The point is not to subject ourselves to gruel for the rest of our lives in a symbolic expression of identification with the hungry…it’s to take action so that after being given gruel or nourishing casserole that their bodies can handle, along with the resources and tools to rise above their current circumstances, they too can have the joy of tasting a chicken alfredo pasta dish or authentic Mexican or Chinese food or a Greek Salad.

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