Category Archives: food and health

Healthy Eating Research Grants

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation sponsors a program called Healthy Eating Research through which they support research on healthy eating among children. The program recently released a call for proposals for rather substantial grants, which we quote below. This seems like a great opportunity for anthropologists who do research in related areas. Note that they will hold a webinar for interested applicants to describe the program and the grant application process on June 6, which is next week. If anyone from SAFN gets a grant, we would like to read about it here!

From the CFP web site:

Healthy Eating Research has released its 2018 Call for Proposals (CFP). This CFP is for two types of awards aimed at providing advocates, decision-makers, and policymakers with evidence to promote the health and well-being of children through nutritious foods and beverages.

The two types of funding opportunities included in this CFP are:

  • Round 11 small-scale grants (up to $200,000 and 18 months)
  • Round 11 large-scale grants (up to $500,000 and 24 months)

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) is focused on policy, systems, and environmental change (PSE) strategies that support parents’ and caregivers’ ability to provide environments that nurture and foster children’s physical, socioemotional, and cognitive health and well-being. In the area of food and nutrition, RWJF is particularly interested in PSE strategies that impact families, early care environments, schools, and communities at a population-level. Research studies must focus on PSE approaches with strong potential to improve children’s physical, socioemotional, and/or cognitive health and well-being through nutritious foods and beverages. Proposals will need to make clear connections between the study’s PSE strategies of interest and specific indicators of child health and well-being.

All studies must have the potential to impact groups at highest risk for poor health and well-being, and nutrition and weight-related health disparities. We are especially interested in studies focused on black or African American, Latino(a) or Hispanic, American Indian or Alaskan Native, Asian American, and native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander populations; and children living in lower-income rural and urban communities, with the aim of promoting equity. Target age groups are infants, children, and adolescents (ages 0 to 18) and their families.

Click here to download the CFP for more information on eligibility and selection criteria and descriptions of the types of studies that could be funded.

HEALTHY EATING RESEARCH ROUND 11 GRANTS

Approximately $2.6 million will be awarded through HER Round 11 grants. The anticipated allocation of funds is as follows:

  • Approximately $1.6 million will be awarded as small-scale grants, resulting in the funding of up to 8 small research grants through this solicitation. Each grant will award up to $200,000 for up to 18 months.
  • Approximately $1 million will be awarded as large-scale grants, resulting in the funding of 2 large-scale grants through this solicitation. Each grant will award up to $500,000 for up to 24 months.

How to Apply

All applications for this solicitation must be submitted via the RWJF online system. Visit www.rwjf.org/cfp/her11 and use the “Apply Online” link.

There are two phases in the application process:
Stage 1: Concept Paper
Stage 2: Full Proposal (for invited applicants only)

Applicant Webinar

A webinar for interested applicants will be held on Wednesday, June 6, 2018, from 3:00-4:00 p.m. ET. The purpose of the applicant webinar is to describe the Healthy Eating Research program, explain the scope of the CFP, review the application and review processes, and give you a chance to ask questions about this funding opportunity.

Registration is required to participate in this webinar. Please register at: https://cc.readytalk.com/r/pikqk3gpn57y&eom

Key Dates and Deadlines

June 6, 2018 (3 p.m. ET): Optional applicant webinar.
Registration is required: https://cc.readytalk.com/r/pikqk3gpn57y&eom

July 18, 2018 (3 p.m. ET): Concept papers for small- and large-scale grants are due in the online system. Concept papers submitted after July 18, 2018 (3 p.m. ET) will not be reviewed.

Frequently Asked Questions

Download answers to Frequently Asked Questions for this CFP. If you have additional questions about this funding opportunity, please contact the HER national program office at healthyeating@duke.edu or 1-800-578-8636.

 

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Food Insecurity and Chronic Malnutrition in Rural Indigenous Guatemala

SAFN GUATEIMG_1

With the title, “Latinx Foodways in North America,” we aim to put the series in a more international perspective, inclusive of the United States, Caribbean, Mexico, Central America, and Canada. Here we introduce Dr. Meghan Farley Webb’s informative piece on fieldwork methods and nutrition with indigenous communities in rural Guatemala. Her work illustrates the global framework of this series. Enjoy!

Food Insecurity and Chronic Malnutrition in Rural Indigenous Guatemala

Wuqu’ Kawoq | Maya Health Alliance is an NGO providing high-quality, evidence-based health care in indigenous communities in Guatemala. Guatemala is especially affected by chronic malnutrition, or stunting, with some Maya communities experiencing stunting rates of seventy-five percent.1 As part of our Complete Child program, we have undertaken several mixed-methods studies to explore why stunting remains a problem in Maya communities.2-3 Food insecurity, common in rural indigenous communities, contributes to the persistence of stunting in Maya communities. In some communities where we work, all households experience moderate to severe food insecurity, as measured by the FANTA Food Access and Insecurity Scale. The FANTA scale provides a quick (only nine questions) and cross-culturally reliable means of assessing household food insecurity. The scale pays special attention to the issue of reliable access to healthy food.

Poor Feeding Indicators & Food Availability

Twenty-four hour food recalls are an important tool in nutritional assessment, but they have been shown to underestimate caloric and dietary diversity in Guatemala.4 Our investigations show similar problems, in part because most rural communities have a once weekly market where diverse fruits and vegetables can be purchased. Little access to refrigeration means that nutritionally diverse foods are often not available during the week. While seven-day food frequency questionnaires report higher quantities of fruits and vegetables, children’s diets remain deficient in dairy, flesh foods, eggs, and vitamin-A rich foods. Use of these questionnaires—which query the frequency of consumption of culturally relevant food items, divided into WHO food groups—is imperfect, as it may over- or underestimate consumption of some items; however, we find they provide an accurate general assessment of dietary diversity.

In contrast to the limited availability of fresh fruits and vegetables, pre-packaged junk food is readily available in tienditas (small corner stores). Focus groups and ethnographic interviews reveal that the ease of preparation of pre-packaged foods as well as children’s requests for junk foods and their relative low cost were additional drivers for the consumption of low-quality, processed foods. The proliferation of junk foods—sometimes referred to as “coca-colonization”5—means that Guatemala must simultaneously work to combat both stunting and obesity.

Poverty & Food Expenditures

In addition to this limited access to high-quality, nutritionally diverse foods, our research shows how endemic poverty contributes to food insecurity. We use the Quick Poverty Score to assess poverty in the communities we serve. The tool uses locally relevant “poverty indicators” to assess the likelihood that a household member is at or below $2 USD or $1USD/day. It is unsurprising that many households in rural indigenous Guatemala experience high levels of poverty. On average food expenditures are low, often so low that it would be impossible to meet caloric and micronutrient needs. Our research shows that underemployment and agricultural cycles result in high variability in income, and therefore, limit money available to spend on food.

Non-Traditional Agricultural Exports

Stunting rates remain high even in agricultural communities for two reasons. First, many households do not own enough land to sustain domestic production. Second, many rural agricultural communities have shifted from milpa (corn and beans) production to production for export. In the Guatemalan highlands, broccoli, snow peas, green beans, and blackberries have replaced traditionally grown and locally eaten crops. The shift to non-traditional agricultural exports negatively impacts dietary diversity not only because of a loss of subsistence crops, but also because growing these non-traditional exports often requires taking on significant debts for seeds and other agricultural inputs. Non-traditional agricultural exports have further worsened the conditions of food insecurity as the majority of rural Maya farmers do not report economic benefits to growing these crops. This is due in large part to the practice of selling crops to middlemen, rather than directly to exporters.

Programmatic Implications & Additional Research

Our research has shown how economic and environmental factors contribute to food insecurity and chronic malnutrition in rural indigenous Guatemala. Programs aimed at improving nutritional outcomes in indigenous children must also address cultural factors. For example, focus groups and numerous clinical interactions have demonstrated the importance of secondary caregivers, especially paternal grandmothers. Multi-generational family compounds mean that mothers, at whom most nutritional programming is aimed, may not be fully in control of food purchasing and/or preparation decision making. Home-based nutritional counseling offers one way to address barriers to improving nutritional outcomes in infants and young children. Internal evaluation of our nutritional programming and a recent clinical trial demonstrate the effectiveness of such intensive, home-based nutritional counseling to improve dietary diversity, minimum acceptable diet, and height/length-for-age. More information about our research, including copies of our published work and training materials, can be found here.

Meghan Farley Webb is a Staff Anthropologist with Wuqu’ Kawoq|Maya Health Alliance.

 

1 Black, R. E., C. G. Victora, S. P. Walker, Z. A. Bhutta, P. Christian, and M. Onis. 2013. “Maternal and child undernutrition and overweight in low-income and middle-income countries.”  Lancet 382. doi: 10.1016/s0140-6736(13)60937-x.

2 Ministerio de Salud Pública y Asistencia Social, Instituto Nacional de Estadística, and Secretaría de Planificación y Programación de la Presidencia. 2015. Encuesta Nacional de Salud Materno Infantil 2014-2015: Innforme de Indicadores Básicos. Guatemala City: Ministerio de Salud Pública y Asistencia Social (MSPAS).

3 Chary, Anita, Sarah Messmer, E. Sorenson, Nicole Henretty, Shom Dasgupta, and Peter Rohloff. 2013. “The Normalization of Childhood Disease: An Ethnographic Study of Child Malnutrition in Rural Guatemala.”  Human Organization 72 (2):87-97.

4 Rodriguez, M. M., H. Mendez, B. Torun, D. Schroeder, and A. D. Stein. 2002. “Validation of a semi-quantitative food-frequency questionnaire for use among adults in Guatemala.”  Public Health Nutrition 5. doi: 10.1079/phn2002333.

5 Leatherman, T.L. and A Goodman. 2005. “Coca-colonization of Diets in the Yucatán.” Social Science and Medicine 61(4):833-846. doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2004.08.047

Photo provided by the author and Wuqu’ Kawoq:

Image 1: A vendor sells fresh produce in the market. Most rural indigenous communities in Guatemala have only one market day a week.

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Review: Metabolic Living

 Metabolic Living: Food, Fat, and The Absorption of Illness in India. Harris Solomon. Duke University Press, 2016

Gauri Anilkumar Pitale
Southern Illinois University

          This original ethnographic work studies the meanings and practices surrounding metabolic functions in the everyday life and diet of contemporary urban Indians. Set in the city of Mumbai, the author challenges the reader to question the notion of “globesity”. Such terms loom important in the epidemiological considerations about the sudden increase in obesity and type 2 diabetes in India in the past few decades. Solomon provides the readers with detailed ethnographic vignettes that render his interlocutors as real people with problems and issues connected to city living, the same problems that affect their bodies in turn. Using the concept of ‘absorption of illness’ as the central theme of the book, the author states, “I consider how people make connections between food and urban life to explain that absorption is taking hold as the ground for experiencing and making sense of chronic illness” (Pg. 5).

            The book begins with a discussion of the ‘thin-fat’ Indian phenotype, used by scientists to comprehend the current rates of obesity and diabetes in India. Trying to attack the concept of metabolic syndrome from many perspectives, the author generates an ethnography that takes into consideration the problem of obesity and diabetes from several different directions. He carefully begins this book by discussing the Indian thin-fat phenotype. This phenotype, typical of Indians, results in the Indian people having a high amount of central adiposity (abdominal fat). A phenotype resulting from the environment of the womb (connected to the thrifty phenotype theory), this theory suggests that Indians are more susceptible to metabolic disorders. Diabetes and obesity are therefore developmental in origin. Giving us an account of his visit to Dr. Yajnik’s clinic (Dr. Yajnik is one of the two authors who proposed the theory of the thin-fat Indian phenotype), he reports Yajnik’s opinion that there is a need to address the underlying susceptibility of Indian bodies to being afflicted by metabolic disorders, rather than focusing purely on the treatment and prevention of the diseases themselves.  Talking to householders and the other people that he encountered throughout his fieldwork, Solomon plots the changing perspectives in relation to food and the body. He considers the conception of both the food and the body from the viewpoint of doctors, epidemiologists, scientists, nutritionists, housewives, street food servers, and manufacturers of processed food products.

            Tracing the historical perception of the problem of diabetes in India, Solomon brings forth the idea of “tenshun”. “Tenshun”, that mental stress which his interlocutors claim, afflicts the mind and predisposes people to obesity and diabetes, is at the heart of the epidemic that plagues contemporary Indians. Hinting at the ever-shifting discussions about bodies, he brings to light the many terms that people use to refer to overweight and obese bodies. This is important because people in India are showing signs of obesity. The words used range from mota (Hindi for fat) to the usage of the English word “healthy” to allude to overweight or chubby bodies. Diseases too are referred to with specific names. Diabetes could be referred to simply as sugar and cardiovascular disease as blockage. Solomon’s aim in discussing these terms is to imply that metabolic disorders have become common enough to form a part of the daily conversations of Mumbaikars. The threat of being afflicted with diabetes or obesity is real and looms large in their minds. This brings us back to the idea of “tenshun”. Through the course of this book, Solomon brings to light his interlocutors’ claims that merely living in Mumbai makes one’s body absorb the stresses of living, in turn creating diseased bodies that suffer from metabolic problems. Every discussion about obesity and diabetes gave way to deliberations pertaining to stress. His participants assert that the stresses of city living affected their diets, the development of their illness, and their body’s responses to such health conditions.

            Solomon weaves the chapters of his book together using interludes. These interludes, tangentially connected to the general theme of illness absorption that is so central to this book, are heavily fleshed out ethnographic vignettes about the city of Mumbai. These detailed descriptions talk about the mango madness that endangers the carefully prescribed diets given by exasperated nutritionists. They tell us of the struggles of Manuli (Manuli is that suburb of Mumbai where Solomon carried out household research) locals in attempting to have the governmental authorities take note of their troubles over accessing their share of food owed to them through the state’s ration card. These vignettes transpose the reader to the site of the study. They render Mumbai as a city of multiple communities and provides the reader with a multi-faceted understanding of Solomon’s field site.

            The strength of this ethnographic work lies in its multi-pronged approach. Not only does he interact with housewives, so well known as the domestic gatekeepers of Indian households, he also studies and interviews food corporation researchers and marketing heads, whose aim is to float “functional foods” that these very housewives will allow into their homes. By considering the struggle between the concerns about adulteration (milawat) which his respondents focus on intensely, the author discusses the newest fad of “functional foods” which are becoming popular in Indian households. Functional foods are foods created by food companies to render everyday staples healthier. Functional foods promise “extra benefits” because they are enriched with vitamins and minerals. They espouse to function categorically by aiding in the prevention of metabolic disorders. Fast gaining popularity in India, functional foods claim to assure buyers that they will alleviate their health problems. In such a manner, everyday staples such as wheat, rice, flour, and milk become functional foods. In the face of fears about adulteration and metabolic problems, the author demonstrates why and how functional foods are gaining traction in India.

            Solomon pushes the envelope on the famous concept of ‘gastropolitics’ put forth by Appadurai and studied by many food scholars since. Using the example of the famous Mumbai vada-paav, he connects street food to the very identity of urban spaces. Focusing on the vada-paav, referred to as the “lifeline of Mumbai” by some of his interlocutors, he pushes forward the concept of gastropolitics to demonstrate to the reader that street food can be reflective of politics, power, and class dynamics within a city. Attempting to trace the origin of the vada-paav, its usage, and its attempted standardization by both political parties and food corporations, the author states, “By moving beyond the confines of street food as a bounded entity, it is possible to map the reaches of gastropolitics into livelihoods, community injuries, dreams of urban renewal, and transnational enterprise” (Pg. 75).

            In the latter half of the book, Solomon focuses on the clinical therapies and gastric bypass surgeries taking place in Indian hospitals as the site to study the discussions pertaining to metabolism. While early on in the book he deliberates on the ever-blurry food-drug boundary, in the latter half of the book he acknowledges the necessity of looking at diets as therapy. Shadowing clinical dietary therapists and nutritionists, he demonstrates the daily struggles of both the clinicians and the afflicted when it comes to nutritional therapy.  In a clinician’s office where metabolism is being treated as a site of problem, multiple medical epistemologies collide. As Harris states, “These counseling visits illustrate the power of diets to coordinate the uncertainties of the metabolism” (Pg. 160). In these clinics, the onus is not only on the patient’s metabolism but also on their compliance. Dieticians insisted that patients’ compliance or non-compliance was what affected the result of dietary therapy. The dietician’s office was also a place where functional foods were prescribed to ailing patients. Such clinical therapies involved first measuring the patients’ bodies, both outwardly and internally. Weighing and measuring bodies went hand in hand with blood sugar, cholesterol, and hormonal level test. Through his ethnographic vignettes, Solomon manifests that the Ayurvedic concept of food as medicine is significantly overlapping with biomedical treatments for metabolic disorders. The result is a medical landscape that is vastly varied but one where food takes the center stage when it comes to health and disease.

            Solomon concludes the book by considering the idea that “as metabolic illness increasingly occupies global health interest and investment, what is needed is a perspective on metabolisms and their disorders different from one grounded in concerns about overconsumption” (Pg. 228). By tracing the historical food flows, the current shifting foodscape of Mumbai, the food standardization attempted by corporations, the author demonstrates to the readers that metabolic diseases are firmly entangled in social, political, gendered, and historical processes. Harris claims that through his work he approaches the concept of metabolism ethnographically. He states, “My principal concern in this book has been to develop an ethos of absorption at the interfaces between food and living” (Pg. 227).

            A wonderfully evocative ethnography, Solomon’s book makes one reflect on the very nature of metabolic syndrome. How does one address the solutions to a health problem that is so closely connected to food? The very food and eating which are sacred, political, social, and emotional.  Metabolic syndrome renders food as a focal point. Food can be addictive, rendering one’s body diseased, or it can be therapeutic, cleansing one’s body from the inside. Through this book, Solomon relays and reflects on this problematic relation, challenging medical experts to consider a multi-layered approach to solving the issues of obesity and diabetes that plague contemporary India.

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EM Thoughts and Readings!

Ellen Messer

March 17–St. Patrick’s Day fell on a Friday during Lent, when Roman Catholics ordinarily forego meat. But this year the Boston-based Roman Catholic Cardinal O’Malley gave everyone permission to eat meat–i.e., corned beef–so they could celebrate their heritage.

The unconsummated union of Unilever and Kraft-Heinz continues to generate commentary. Jack Nelson, in the Financial Times, praised Unilever’s “responsible capitalism” as contrasted with Kraft Heinz’s “red blooded cost cutters” who cut jobs and divisions with abandon, with no concern for affected workers and places. Will Hutton argues that “companies with a declared purpose perform better” (a reference to responsible capitalism as opposed to unbridled profits). Share holders, according to various sources, are of mixed opinions. Depends who you read and trust.

Avian flu has struck Tennessee farms that supply Tyson Foods. All birds within a 6 mile radius of the observed outbreak have been culled. Stay tuned. This is not the end of the story. Ask: besides the birds, who suffers the losses? You can track these and other avian flu pandemics here.

Score spuds for “The Martian.” The International Potato Center (CIP) one of the consortium of international agricultural research centers, this one based in Lima, Peru, has imitated “The Martian” (i.e., the movie’s) potato experiment on desolate Mars — this time for real in the Peruvian desert. The experiment reports promising results! The CIP experiment can also be looked at the opposite way: using Peruvian conditions to shape understandings of what might be grown on Mars under what modified conditions.

The Philippines, annoyed at the highest levels with US policy, has struck a trade deal to send agricultural (among other) products to China. Officially warming to the Chinese as a partner, the government is also scorning the US.

In keeping with new US administration policy on “America First” high level US officials push to raise US scrutiny of China food deals in the US (e.g., Chinese investments that result in takeover of US food companies).

Allegations assert that (a now retired) EPA official colluded with Monsanto to hide disease risks of glyphosate (Roundup herbicide) exposure.  Succinct summary of the issues can be accessed here. Almost simultaneously, EU official chemical assessment office gave glyphosate a pass on cancer risk, although the findings remain contentious, and no one questions findings that Roundup harms aquatic life. (See news summary here.)

What do I think? Company lobbyists are always trying to influence regulations and findings. Results of experiments designed to judge carcinogenicity, and impacts on ordinary people who use Roundup, depend on terms of exposure to the chemical and individual vulnerability.  As a result, different studies reach different conclusions with opposite safety-policy implications.  Why are these issues surfacing now?  Glyphosate’s safety evaluation is up for renewal in the US and Europe (and the world).

On another topic, leading chocolate companies have pledged to advance platforms and guidelines for sustainability; more precisely, to prevent deforestation.  Some of these companies in the past have posted confusing standards.  Note that the efforts are addressed at high levels (states, corporations) and while they voice concerns about small farmers, don’t formally integrate them into the proposed decision making for new normative practices.

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Review: The Psychology of Overeating

Psych of overeating cover

Cargill, Kima. 2015. The Psychology of Overeating. Food and the Culture of Consumerism. London/New York: Bloomsbury Academic (216 pp).

Julie Starr
Hamilton College

In The Psychology of Overeating Kima Cargill, a practicing clinical psychologist and professor of psychology, argues that overeating is a by-product of the American propensity to overconsume. Situating her account of unhealthy eating habits within the ‘culture of consumption’—our endless desire to have or purchase ‘more’—Cargill illustrates how the accumulation of empty calories parallels that of unnecessary goods. This book is Cargill’s (personal) attempt to convince her patients, students, and a general audience that overconsumption is toxic to our bodies and psyches and, far from fulfilling our lives, induces the modern malaise of the ‘empty self.’

The book’s main protagonist is Cargill’s patient, Allison, who is obese and unhappy. Allison feels isolated and wants to lose weight in order to improve her social/dating life but is caught in an endless loop of seeking out new products to facilitate her efforts. From expensive juicers and nutritional supplements, to super foods and gym memberships, Allison’s attempts at weight loss are mitigated by her purchases and are short lived; they are interspersed with binge eating episodes and breakdowns. Cargill’s efforts to convince Allison of the futility of her approach are ineffective, in part giving rise to Cargill’s desire to write the book.

The book consists of eleven short chapters, beginning with an introduction in which we come to know Allison and learn of the main problem Cargill hopes to tackle in the book: the powerful forces of consumerism that lead most of us to overeat. She then turns her attention to a general discussion of consumerism: it’s rise in the U.S. (Chapter 2) and the psychological distress it causes (Chapter 3) before tackling consumerism and food (Chapter 4) and the way the food industry is tricking/manipulating its consumers into eating more (Chapter 5). For Cargill, the culprit of our malaise is sugar, the overconsumption of which she links to its historical rise as a commodity (Chapter 6) and our biological propensity to enjoy it, a fact that the food industry preys upon to create ‘hyperpalatable’ and addictive foods (Chapter 7).

These first seven chapters set the stage for the most interesting (and most anthropological) part of the book, in which Cargill gives an account of the newly designated psychological disorders of Binge-Eating and Hoarding (Chapter 8). In support of her main thesis, both ‘overconsumption’ disorders emerged at the same time, in 2013 with the publication of the updated Diagnostic and Statistical Manual 5 (DSM), the handbook of all disorders penned by the American Psychiatric Association. In her discussion of the manual, Cargill draws our attention to the way that treating Binge-Eating and Hoarding as psychological disorders blames the “bounded individual, decontextualized from surrounding cultural and economic forces” (114). She recognizes the power the DSM has in establishing psychological norms, which shapes the experience, diagnoses, and treatment of psychological disorders. But a Foucaultian she is not; after recognizing issues with taxonomy, she is quick to defend the ‘purity’ of the scientific method (128) and views the adulteration of it as stemming from the pursuit of profit.

The fact that overeating is now considered a psychological disorder sets the stage for her discussion of how Big Food and Big Pharm are working together to create and then medicate consumer-driven problems (Chapter 9), which the FDA has little power to monitor or quell (Chapter 10). In an all too familiar tale, then, Cargill presents another case in which consumer culture aids corporations in seeking profit at the cost of consumer health. She concludes the book with some tips on how to consume less and more wisely, in order to regain control of our eating and consumption habits and reverse “the course of Empty Selfhood” (154).

The strength of the book is no doubt the way that Cargill seeks to situate psychological disorders and the problem of overeating within the larger cultural context of consumption, a necessary step to understanding the dilemmas individuals face in our society. But in some ways the book fails to deliver on its promise, mostly due to a lack of theoretical framework (e.g. practice) through which to integrate psychology, biological and ‘unconscious’ drives, positionality, the pressures of consumer life, and the marketing tricks and ploys used to sell products. As such, the chapters move between historical accounts, personal anecdotes, popular culture, philosophy, evolutionary psychology, social theory, personal opinions, and Allison’s (and other quickly introduced and then forgotten patients and acquaintances’) perils. This ad hoc approach undermines analytical cohesion as anecdotes work against and often contradict previously established arguments.

For example, in addition to education and policy change, one remedy Cargill suggests for fighting the forces of consumerism is for individuals to use their ‘common sense.’ She writes: “With the notable exception of children, no matter how little education someone has, no matter how little nutritional literacy one has, there is still common sense. None of us is forced to eat junk food and it doesn’t take a college degree or even a high school diploma to know that an apple is healthier than a donut” (59). Setting aside the way she ignores how common sense is itself a product of power relations, Cargill’s book is full of examples where she is the only one with such ‘common sense.’ Indeed, we are presented example upon example where Cargill is ‘surprised’ and ‘puzzled’ by her (educated!) friends, students, and patients, and their lack of knowledge about simple nutrition. According to Cargill, this is due mostly to the way our psychological defenses allow us to “conveniently deny” (73) food’s unhealthy properties.

Although she seeks to integrate psychology with cultural context, Cargill inevitably returns to the individual to account for why we overconsume. This is most apparent in her conclusion, where she offers advice on how to consume less and more wisely. But by focusing on consumption practices, in an odd way Cargill aligns with the very system she seeks to critique: agency comes through what we choose to buy (or not buy) rather than our activity in social and political life.

As a whole, this book is best suited for those struggling to control their desire to overeat and looking for inspiration to cut back on consumption. Some should consider supplementation to better control their appetite check the user review when in doubt about a product and do your research! In an academic setting, Chapter 8 would make a nice addition to an undergraduate course on Medical Anthropology; Chapters 7, 9, and 10 could be useful on a syllabus for an undergraduate course on food and health.

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Food Forward on PBS

Food-Forward-COVE-16x9-288x162

David Beriss
University of New Orleans

Food Forward is a new documentary series on PBS focusing on people experimenting with new (and sometimes very old) ways of producing food in the United States. The broadcast schedule is available on the PBS website and you can also watch full episodes there. There is a great deal of information about the show available on the Food Forward website as well.

If you visit the web site, you will see that the directors try to distinguish their shows from the cooking competitions, restaurant rescues, and searches for exotic foods that populate food television. But this is PBS, so that is not really a relevant comparison. Instead, Food Forward differentiates itself by not being another documentary about why our food system is inexorably leading us to nutritional and environmental doom. The makers of Food Forward argue that we need a way out, a plan, a way to save ourselves. The episodes document the stories of people who are trying to make food better. They call them “Food Rebels,” because they are taking on the industrial food system, finding ways to produce foods that they claim are environmentally sustainable, healthy, tasty, sometimes even affordable.

I have watched two episodes and the food rebellion looks delicious, the landscapes look beautiful, even the people seem spiritual and remarkably handsome. It would be easy to be cynical about all this — so much optimism in the face of our massive industrial food system might be a bit quixotic. But there is in fact quite a lot to think about here. There are fascinating food innovations, including sustainable farm raised fish in the very first episode. A lot of the innovations are described as efforts to return to older ways of doing things–from fishing with weirs to raising grass-fed beef without antibiotics or hormones. The farmers and fishers who are doing these things are also finding ways to make these methods profitable. These are hopeful films and, frankly, it is easy (and pleasurable) to get swept up in the optimism.

The two episodes I watched, “Go Fish!” and “The Meat of the Matter,” are about fishers, ranchers, and farmers, documenting both production (on ranches, boats, fish farms, etc.) and distribution (community supported fisheries, community supported farmers, restaurants, markets, etc.). There will be episodes that explore urban farming, GMOs, obesity, school lunch, and even hunting (at least 5 episodes are currently available on the PBS site; I assume more are to come). If all the episodes are as good as the first two, any of them could be usefully shown in anthropology classes dealing with food and culture. There is a great deal here to generate discussion among students, many useful questions to be raised. The length of the episodes (about 25 minutes each) also lends itself to class use. Take a look. Let us know (in the comments section) what you think.

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Good Foods and Foods Good for Health: Hunger and Obesity in Samoa

Kitchen counter with (from left to right) large pot with rice, sugar, teapot, and a bowl with boiled bananas with coconut cream (fa'i fa'alifu). Photo by Jessica Hardin.

Kitchen counter with (from left to right) large pot with rice, sugar, teapot, and a bowl with boiled bananas with coconut cream (fa’i fa’alifu). Photo by Jessica Hardin.

Jessica Hardin
Brandeis University

After a cup of sugary tea, John, a Samoan physician, explained to me that the major cause of metabolic disorders in Samoa is the lack of “access to a lifestyle where you can pick your own food.” He immediately offered himself as an example; “My own battle is with food, because we are family oriented and I find that I am healthiest when I am overseas working.” In other words, John found himself “pining for healthy foods” because when eating with his family he had to eat what was available. John felt he was “healthier” when he was traveling because he could choose his own foods, which were “foods good for” health. Others I interviewed would often bring up craving “good foods,” that is fatty, salty, and sugary foods. One diabetes patient, Iona, explained his difficulty with changing his diet: “I can see the piece of pork lying there, and the fried chicken leg. Well, I crave it. It is tempting you, even when I am given food cooked with vegetables. That’s good because it helps with my diabetes. It is best for me.” These vegetable options were good for health but were not the good foods (meaai lelei) Iona craved. Both John and Iona felt unsatisfied and hungry even though they had access to food; they also both struggled with their weight and controlling their diabetes.

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Obesity research in Samoa tends to obscure the experiences of people like John and Iona, that is the experience of hunger and craving in a environment known for imported food dependence and obesity – Samoa. Anthropologists are increasingly calling for bringing obesity and hunger research together as “contingent circumstance[s] of inequality” (Pike 2014). Obesity research in Samoa has documented why obesity and related metabolic disorders have increased so rapidly. This research tends to focus on the culture of eating, feasting, and access to imported foods. However, the other side of food dependence is a story of craving, hunger, and desire, which needs equal attention. The lack of attention to the experience of hunger in obesity research reflects the drive in obesity research ‘to do something’ about obesity. The “war on fat” is waged domestically and globally and the rhetoric of epidemics reinforces the idea that all fat is unhealthy, that excess weight is a disease, and stigmatizing weight and eating is an acceptable, and even desirable, way to address said epidemic. As a result, the medicalization and moralization of fat can obscure the co-presence of the abundance of imported, fatty-salty foods and (the experience or fear of) hunger.

In other words, while Samoa is dependent on imported, highly processed foods, and these foods have become incorporated into food sharing and food values, not everyone across Samoa has equal access to those foods. Fear of hunger and desire for satiety encourages many Samoans to eat good foods, when they are available, even when these same foods are not considered good for health.

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Family meals: Chicken with cucumber and white rice. Photo by Jessica Hardin.

Family meals: Chicken with cucumber and white rice. Photo by Jessica Hardin.

Many of the diabetes patients I interviewed understood they needed to eat differently than the rest of their family, but by eating differently they felt different––hungry or left wanting––even if they had plenty of food to eat. Manu, in his sixties who visits the diabetes clinic every month (indicating that he is not in control of his diabetes) said: “everything I like is not allowed. But if you want to live you have to exercise and eat, well not eat, because your life is in trouble. Sometimes it’s hard so I just eat.” When I asked Manu to speak more about why he “just eats” it became apparent that Manu struggled because he felt there was no food for him to eat, “I eat what [my family] gives me.” Another diabetes patient iterated this: “whatever foods I get that’s it, if they give me pork I eat it all.” For Manu, not only were the things he liked off limits but also in his household there were no alternatives. For alternatives foods to be available, he would have had to request different foods or preparations styles, which may have required the family to spend resources differently. Manu did not cook and did not earn cash and so despite being an elder in his family, who presumably could make demands to change household consumption, he refrained. Just as Iona desired chicken legs, many of my interlocutors experienced deprivation when changing their eating habits. “It’s the kind of thing where you love eating salty food so it’s difficult to change,” explained a nurse in a district hospital. She laughingly said, “this hunger, this appetite continues,” even after eating.

 Lea, a woman in her late forties, lived alone with her son. Instead of insisting that her son work the plantation, which would be a reasonable

Family meals: Instant noodles (saimini) with tinned corned beef (pisupo). Photo by Jessica Hardin.

Family meals: Instant noodles (saimini) with tinned corned beef (pisupo). Photo by Jessica Hardin.

response given that would be the family’s only access to cash (from the sale of crops) and starchy foods, Lea insisted her son stay in school. This meant Lea tended to the plantation. She said sometimes “there is nothing, I don’t know where to find food, maybe in the ocean sometimes. Sometimes I only boil a bunch of bananas for the whole day and night.” Only bananas is an idiom of hunger because it suggests that meals are incomplete. Starches alone without good food does not constitute what Samoans would consider a “meal.” The incompleteness leaves the person feeling hungry, despite access to some food. Another woman, I interviewed noted that sometimes her household has “only taro” to eat. She said, “it’s better to eat even when it’s bad food.”

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This desire, or hunger for complete meals or good food, may encourage some to eat good foods when they are available, even if they are “bad” for health. These decisions reflect social and economic constraints, but satiety, desire, craving, and hunger for good foods also influences food choices. Epidemiological research has richly documented this “natural experiment” but in documenting these factors and features of global change, the experience of those suffering from cash-poverty and disease are often omitted. Inequalities generate hunger and craving, even when there is food available.

Jessica Hardin is a PhD Candidate at Brandeis University and incoming Assistant Professor at Pacific University. She is the co-editor of the volume Reconstructing Obesity: The Meaning of Measures, the Measure of Meanings . This post is based on a chapter, which will appear in the volume, The History of the Ethnography of Hunger: Research, Policy, and Practice, edited by Ellen Messer.

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Filed under anthropology, diabetes, food and health, hunger, obesity, Samoa