Food security and healthy eating: Views from El Salvador

Food security is “a situation that exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life”. The term was first coined in the 1970s, alongside global food crises, when hunger and malnutrition were front and center in the food and nutrition agenda internationally. As defined by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, this concept encompasses dimensions of availability, access and the biological utilization of food, for an “active and healthy life”. It seeks to include the quantitative aspects of food (“sufficient” food) along with the quality aspects (“safe and nutritious” food), with the latter being a relatively recent addition to the concept.

Things have changed since the 1970s. Under- and over-nutrition coexist within many countries in the Global South, and in many cases within communities and households. Yet, while the food security concept has evolved, interventions, more often than not, still seek to provide “sufficient” food, which may not always be “safe and nutritious”.

The evolution of nutrition concerns alongside the changes in conceptualizations of food security motivated my research in El Salvador, and, in specific, a piece recently published in Perpectivas de Nutricion Humana. In the article, published in Spanish, I addressed the question, “Is healthy eating part of food security?” This question was discussed with individuals living in resource-poor communities in El Salvador, and the answer, not surprisingly, was not simple. Some research collaborators argued that as long as you had something to eat, even if it was only tortillas y frijoles, you were food secure, while others argued that this was not the case, as seen in these quotes below,

Comer saludable sí es tener seguridad alimentaria, no lo contrario. Si tiene el recurso económico, pero no tiene el conocimiento, va a comprar cualquier cosa para llenar el estómago
[To eat healthy is to have food security, but not the contrary. If you have the economic resource, but not the knowledge, you will buy anything to fill your stomach]

No todo lo que tenemos de seguridad alimentaria es nutritivo, pero sí lo básico tiene que estar en el hogar para la seguridad alimentaria. Más tarde, compramos otras cosas, que son el complemento para la alimentación nutricional
[Not everything that we have for food security is nutritious, but the basics have to be in the home to attain food security. Later, we buy other things, which are complementary for nutritious eating]

While nutrition knowledge and economic access are essential for families to eat healthfully, this expected rational behavior is confounded when foods considered healthy are also associated with states of food deprivation, and foods seen as unhealthy and even dangerous, are associated with increased purchasing power and a higher socioeconomic status.

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This juxtaposition of health values against pleasure, convenience and social status needs to be acknowledged and address in policy and programming implementation. There is still a long road to tackle what seems to be the unsolvable issue of persisting hunger and food insecurity in the global south, we must not turn a blind eye to the growing and perhaps more difficult issue of “over-nutrition”.

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Related post: “Some thoughts on eating healthy

Local chefs and Puerto Rican Cuisine

Arroz con gandules, pernil, pasteles, cuchifritos… These foods come to mind when describing Puerto Rican cuisine. Home cooked, simple dishes. Nothing fancy. These are foods that fill our stomachs and our souls. For many Puerto Ricans, these are to be eaten at home, lovingly made and served by mami or, even better, abuela. Therefore, Puerto Rican food is not to enjoy at a restaurant, and even less pay too much money for it– or is it?

Our cuisine is evolving. Rice, plantains, gandules, pork, and other classic food staples and ingredients are being recombined in creative ways, reinventing or reinterpreting traditional dishes that persist in our culinary memory…

Take for example these dishes from La Jaquita Baya (Miramar, PR). The traditional gandules and habichuelas colora’s are served alongside bite-size arepas. And the pastel? A smaller version, topped with salmorejo de jueyes and fresh greens.

Go south, to the center of the island, and you find Orujo Taller de Gastronomia in Caguas, PR. With this meal, my first time eating cuajitos, where the fattiness of the fried pig ears was balanced by pickled, fresh vegetables.  Also on the menu, slow, smoked pernil on top of the traditional fufu (mashed, sweet plantains).

And the list could go on…

These meals are just a sample of the new, emerging restaurants in Puerto Rico. The “heavy” elements of our cuisine (root crops, fried foods, pork) become “light(er)”, by being served in smaller, more flavorful portions. There are also greens, beyond the usual iceberg lettuce and pale tomatoes. These meals value quality over quantity. The chefs behind these dishes are driven by a desire to elevate our cuisine. With these, they also demonstrate the many possibilities of traditional ingredients, while also seeking to revive almost forgotten ones from a not so distant past.

This ongoing “evolution” or “reinvention” comes hand in hand with an emerging movement back to the island agricultural roots, and a re-valuation of traditional island cuisine. Granted, this is by no means mainstream, and at times, it can be arrogant and pretentious, served with a side of bad service, as in the unfortunate case of this salad:

Green salad, unnamed restaurant (San Juan, PR)

Yet, these new restaurants challenge the ever expanding and conveniently located franchises, offering homogeneous, pre-packaged flavor, for a perceived (but not always) lower price. This role is key in the case of Puerto Rico, where palates are increasingly accustomed to artificial flavors and economic woes are part of everyday conversations. These new restaurants represent the growing entrepreneurship spirit on the island, inspired by a love of food, culture and el buen comer.

Buen provecho and support your local chef!