Talking NAFTA, Food, Mexico and Beyond

This month I was honored to be part of two events* in celebration of Alyshia Gálvez’s new book, Eating NAFTA: Trade, Food policies and the destruction of Mexico (University of California Press). Gálvez is a cultural anthropologist and professor of Latin American and Latino Studies at Lehman College of the City University of New York. Her book, Eating NAFTA, exposes how the North American Free Trade Agreement signed in 1994 between Mexico, the United States and Canada, created fundamental changes in Mexico, specifically in the country’s sustenance and its related nutritional outcomes. NAFTA dramatically altered Mexico’s food system where notions of efficiency became preferred over the importance of sustenance, nutrition, and even taste. As a result, today Mexico imports 42% of its food, mostly from the United States. Furthermore, Gálvez’s Eating NAFTA reminds us how the rural sector has long been seen in Mexico (as in other countries) as backward, blamed for the nation’s lack of development, and in need of intervention – giving way to modernization and industrialization at the expense of sustenance and people’s wellbeing. The book also addresses the rise in obesity and chronic diseases in Mexico and its transnational immigrant communities, as a result of the dietary and population shifts created by NAFTA. In doing so, Galvez makes us think critically about many of Mexico’s public health initiatives. Interventions and policies, as the lauded soda tax, may obscure the structural causes of the problem, including the role of transnational food companies.

While focused in Mexico, it is important to note that the book provides insights that can be readily applied to other Latin American and Caribbean countries. Many of the transitions described in Eating NAFTA resonated with the work I have done in rural communities in Central America, including the shift in status and social norms around traditional dishes as a result of globalization.

A small store in rural El Salvador, featuring a diverse offering of ultra-processed snacks with a few locally produced goods.

Discussions about trade and NAFTA have recently been part of the news, with the President’s criticism of the agreement as a “bad deal” for the United States, and the recent signing of a new version – the USMCA – the unpronounceable acronym for the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement. A quick overview of the new deal by the Brookings Institute shows that the changes are mostly cosmetic and reminds us that the deal is yet to be ratified into law. While the three countries are on schedule for the December 1st signing, the next and most difficult step will be ratifying the agreement. The vote will be significantly influenced by the upcoming midterm elections:

There are reasons why both Republicans and Democrats may be reluctant to approve the deal. Republicans in Congress are wary of Trump’s protectionist instincts; Democrats, meanwhile, are unlikely to actively help Trump realize one of his key campaign promises. Thus, USMCA’s congressional path remains unclear. (Of course, for their part, neither Canada nor Mexico will likely protest too strenuously if the U.S. fails to ratify the new pact, so long as it allows them to keep the existing NAFTA.) – Gertz 2018, Brookings Institution

In the end, the USMCA may do little to change the lives of those most affected by these deals: the invisible rural poor, particularly in Mexico. While there is some excitement about the provisions to potentially improve labor conditions in Mexico, such provisions will not change the existing shifts in the national food environment and the transitions detailed by Gálvez and others.

Trade policies can be better at improving the overall wellbeing of the most vulnerable in the countries, but that will depend on the political will of the leaders in these countries. There is hope in the new Mexican president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and his potential policies to make “rural Mexico great again.” During his political campaign, he endorsed a new version of the Plan de Ayala, based on the plan originally written by Mexican Revolution leader, Emiliano Zapata and his supporters in 1911. The Plan seeks to promote self-sufficiency in important crops, including corn, beans, and wheat. Most importantly, it may address many of the concerns of the rural poor, as summarized below:

The Plan de Ayala explicitly does away with policies that write off poor producers as worthy only of welfare, treating all small and medium-scale farmers as deserving of productive public investment. The Plan addresses chronic market failures in the Mexican countryside, with credit programs, crop insurance, and protection from anti-competitive practices by agribusiness buyers and sellers. It targets support to producers farming fewer than 50 acres. The Plan commits to a transition toward agro-ecology, bars transgenic crops, and creates a National System for the Protection and Improvement of Mesoamerican Agro-biodiversity, with a special program called Native Maize-Tortilla 2050 to promote the cultivation and consumption of native maize. This is just the sort of directed action that can revalue indigenous cultures and practices while actively supporting the production of native maize. – Wise 2018

Much remains to be seen.

Gálvez’s Eating NAFTA is a timely contribution with important lessons learned in these ongoing times of transition for Mexico and beyond.

See this link for upcoming book events and further information about Gálvez and her book.

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* The first event was at NYU and the second at CUNY. Video links will be posted when available.

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Comedores Sociales in Puerto Rico

This post is dedicated to the work of the Centro para el Desarrollo Politico, Educativo y Cultural (CDPEC). The CDPEC organizes the comedores sociales in Puerto Rico – “social dining rooms” or community kitchens that serve food through a grassroots approach. The work of the CDPEC demonstrates the use of food as a vehicle to sustain and promote social justice. Aside from the comedores, the CDPEC  engages in a variety of initiatives that seek to promote autogestion (self-management) to, in their own words, “break the distance that exists between the ideas that promote social change and the people through contact work and popular education” (my translation).

(Click photo for a Vimeo on their work)

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I learned about this work through Giovanni Roberto, organizer at the CDPEC. We were part of the panel at Cocinando Justicia (Cooking Justice).  Loisaida, Inc hosted the event on April 30, 2018. The conversation was moderated by Huascar Robles, author/journalist/producer of Catatonia podcast.

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The panel in action, with Huascar Robles (Left) and Giovanni Robert (Right). 

Huascar led the discussion with thought provoking questions about food security in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, the deleterious effect of the political situation, and the importance of grassroots work to counteract government inaction. Giovanni shared stories of personal and political transformation of some of the people he has met through his work, showcasing the power of food to build bridges and inspire change. On the lighter side, we also learned new recipe ideas, such as quinoa con gandules, as a healthier alternative to rice.

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 Serving food through donations (Photo from Comedores Sociales Facebook Page)

The work of people like Giovanni and his fellow corillo members at the CDPEC is often lost amidst the stream of bad news that continue to emanate from the island. The island has been in a recession for more than a decade. Many continue without electricity almost nine months after Maria. Austerity measures are tightening the conditions even more, in order to pay the $70 billion debt to Wall Street.  Just the day after our panel, the island had a national strike that ended with tear gas. The protest was in opposition to school closings, increases to university tuition and cuts to pensions. In the face of this continued economic pressure and frustration, many continue to leave the island. In short – good news are needed, as well as examples of successful models of autogestion. I will continue to follow the work of the CDPEC. I invite you to do the same and support them in any way you can.

For more information:

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

A Delicious Super Hero

Oh!, y ahora,  ¿Quien podra defenderme?
¡Yo! ¡El Chapulin Colorado!

Roberto Gomez Bolanos (Chespirito) as El Chapulin Colorado.

Roberto Gomez Bolanos (Chespirito) as El Chapulin Colorado

With these words, a new adventure of El Chapulin Colorado started each morning. This Mexican television series evokes memories of childhood to many of us who grew up in Latin American homes. I remember sitting down eating breakfast in front of the TV waiting to see the next conundrum this superhero was about to “solve”.

As a child in Puerto Rico little did I know that Chapulín was more than the name of the superhero. The term is derived from the náhuatl chapōlin, used to refer to jumping insects, such as grasshoppers. In the island we call them esperanzas which occasionally found their way to our home, seen as a sign of good fortunes to come, according to popular lore.

I still watch the show but not as often. Nowadays I enjoy the chapulín alongside a glass of mezcal

A glass of mezcal served with a side of chapulines and apples sprinkled with sal de gusano

A glass of mezcal served with a side of chapulines and apples sprinkled with sal de gusano (Bar in Condesa, Mexico City)

These tiny critters are crunchy, with a salty and spicy taste, and light hints of lemon. And yes, their little legs may get stuck in your teeth, just as with any other food. Before reaching its place alongside a smoky and delightful glass of mezcal, they are washed, cooked in a comal, toasted and seasoned. They are also served in guacamole, tacos, or simply as a snack sold by street vendors in Mexico. Chapulines are sold alongside other insects like worms and tiny little fish similar to the ones you might find in a fishbowl.

Snack vendor cart in Parque de Chapultepec, selling a variety of nuts along with chapulines, small fish, and other snacks.

Snack vendor cart in Parque de Chapultepec, selling a variety of nuts along with chapulines, small fish, and other snacks.

The idea of eating insects may evoke feelings of disgust in many of us. Insects are viewed as dangerous and dirty. Eating them, outside of their cultural context may be seen as a dare (remember Fear Factor?), or as a sign of being an adventuresome, cosmopolitan, culturally sensitive eater. Chapulines have fallen in the realm of the exotic and a “must try” alongside with Oaxaca as the foodie tourist destination identified with the traditional consumption of this insect.

Chapulines are more than a snack. They can be plagues, greatly harming food production. Eating them can be a coping mechanism to deal with their overabundance, while also bringing dietary variety and protein to rural areas (See for example, this initiative in Querétaro, Mexico). Nutritionally, chapulines are a wonderful and sustainable source of protein, calcium, magnesium and vitamin B.

International nutrition organisms are promoting the consumption of insects as an excellent source of protein, as they are a sustainable source of protein, compared with cattle and other common animal flesh sources. Just last year, the UN Food and Agricultural Organization put out a report promoting the worldwide consumption of insects leading to a recent conference in the Netherlands promoting their potential to feed the world, along with a cookbook.  This new push has even generated the peer-reviewed Journal of Insects as Food and Feed, to start publication in 2015.

Could the chapulín move from an exotic accompaniment to my mezcal to the central piece of my dinner? Perhaps, with some guacamole and freshly made tortillas. Could I move beyond the toasted chapulín to stewed worms? That is another story…

Despite my current hesitation, insects are indeed part of the conversation for the future of food and for combating food insecurity. With population growth and worldwide increase in incomes, the demand for animal protein is ever increasing. The often quoted estimate of 9 billion people by 2030 along with increasing concerns over livestock production and the pollution of natural resources that comes with it calls to alternatives to our current dietary habits, and notions of what is “good” to eat. Insects can be part of the answer. Perhaps the Chapulín Colorado is a real-life hero after all.

Click on image for a short video of El Chapulin Colorado

Click on image for a short video of El Chapulin Colorado – Enjoy!