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

Some Thoughts on “Eating Healthy”

“A new year, a new you” is the ever present slogan in commercials as 2013 comes to an end. A new year means a new “reassessment” of ourselves, and who we want to be. In concordance to this, weight loss is a very popular resolution in the United States, along with eating healthy, exercise and quit smoking. Health seems to be our personal responsibility, and it is tightly linked to what we eat and what we do in our spare time.

Last month, Food and Foodways published my article, “Local Notions of Healthy Eating and National Dietary Guidelines”. The research presented in the article was guided by the questions: How do people living in poor communities define what does it mean to eat healthy?  Are these definitions on par with those established by professionals? My motivation was to bring the points of view of my informants to policy makers and food and nutrition professionals. I wanted to question the assumption that “people don’t eat healthy because they don’t know or can’t afford it.” As well as the notion that only “if they knew better and had the means, their diets (and hence their health and lives) would be improved.”

What does it mean to eat “healthy”? The answers were as expected, reviewed below and further expanded in the article:

My informants were eager to talk about the importance of homemade foods for healthy eating, and talked about the unhealthy eating behavior of “others”. However, in more (rare) candid moments they confessed to their taste for sodas, treating themselves to fast food on special occasions, and the convenience of buying a pre-packaged foods and drinks. As I wrote the article and later finished my thesis, I thought of my own use of industrialized foods, how I have never cooked fresh or even dried beans, opting for the canned variety, or how we season our food with Sazón, Maggie or Knorr, instead of using fresh herbs and spices.

I finished my work in El Salvador (along with my thesis) about a year ago. And as it happens to researchers, upon the completion of this work, new questions came to mind as well as a reassessment of my own inquiries. I have become interested in the different perceptions and social acceptance concerning the use of processed, industrialized foods – different notions concerning the modernization of food systems. In addition, I am also thinking about the different conceptualizations of “good foods”, where do these come from and how they relate – or not – to definitions of “healthy foods”. By attempting to answer the question of how are healthy foods defined and perceived in contexts of scarcity, new inquiries came up on the the role of food in our lives and the need for more empathy when discussing or teaching what it means to “eat right”.