Category Archives: obesity

Thesis Review and Interview: Deorukhe Women’s Agency in the Making of Bodies, Cuisine, and Culture in Maharashtra, India

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Photograph: Gauri A. Pitale – Waterlogged rice fields of rural Konkan, Maharashtra

Please note: As Associate Editor, I am soliciting reviews of recent dissertations in the Anthropology of Food. So if you have written a recent thesis or would like to review one, you can contact me directly: Katharina Graf (kg38@soas.ac.uk).

Anna He Purnabramha: Deorukhe Women’s Agency in the Making of Bodies, Cuisine, and Culture in Maharashtra, India. Gauri Anilkumar Pitale. Ph.D. Thesis in Anthropology, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. 2017.

Elizabeth Finnis (University of Guelph, Canada)

Gauri A. Pitale’s doctoral work takes a biocultural approach to understanding potential health implications of dietary changes in the context of liberalization, globalization, and national change in India. Pitale worked with 66 pairs of Deorukhe Brahmin mothers and daughters living in rural and urban Maharashtra; mothers were all born and raised in a pre-liberalization India, with daughters born and raised in the post-liberalization era. Drawing on qualitative and anthropometric data, Pitale looks at intergenerational differences, asking how changing dietary practices are implicated in notions of the self and identity. In doing so, she considers Chronic Non-Communicable Diseases (CNCDs), including obesity, hypertension and diabetes, testing a range of hypotheses, and exploring foodscapes in terms of the lived experiences of her participants and issues of purity, perceptions of health, and the body. What particularly stands out in her ethnographic approach is the placing of anthropometric measurements within larger contexts of notions of identity and caste purity. Her anthropometric results and discussions are bracketed by chapters that draw on her qualitative data and her fieldwork reflections, including considerations of changing perceptions of food/cooking and implications for relationships and exchange, and the ways that processes of urbanization can affect food habits and preferences.

There is much to think about in Pitale’s work, including reflections on the expected and unexpected in fieldwork, urbanization and the presence of CNCDs, and changes in food habits that have both dietary and moral implications for participants. Pitale’s dissertation allows readers to reflect on questions that are of importance both in contemporary India and that also address broader issues of identity, belonging, food, and place. These include: How do notions of purity and kinship intersect with cooking rules, not just in terms of food eaten, but also with regards to how the space of a traditional hearth is used, and what it symbolizes? How does convenience get complicated by notions of authenticity and taste? What do kitchen implements and home-grown or home-prepared spices mean in terms of family history and tradition? How do space and place affect the types of food that daughters want to cook, and their relative cooking skills? How are community ties reinforced through shared cooking activities? And, How are anxieties around maintaining caste identities and/or engaging with cosmopolitan identities, intersecting with food?

These questions are considered through different cultural and data lenses. For example, Pitale provides a discussion of cooking and kitchens, including the symbolic, sacred value of the traditional chul (a u-shaped clay stove, coated with a double-layer of plaster made from cow dung and water, and red earth) and its associated rules for use, versus the comparatively rule-free and convenient gas stove. Through her discussion, Pitale demonstrates some of everyday complexities of balancing multiple factors in food preparation and consumption.

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Photograph: Gauri A. Pitale – Chul in a rural Deorukhe kitchen

Another example includes considerations of some of the differences when it comes to cooking skills among rural and urban daughters. While young rural women are expected to develop cooking skills and learn how to manage a kitchen at a young age, in part related to the need for an alternative cook when mothers are practicing menstrual seclusion, urban daughters are less likely to have significant skills in the kitchen. When urban daughters do cook, it is more likely non-traditional recipes, or “fun” foods like pizza and cakes. This also connects to the chul, with urban daughters preferring to use gas stoves, and in some cases, being unable to effectively cook on a chul at all.

With her anthropometric data, Pitale also considers how nutritional transitions are implicated in CNCDs; she hypothesises clear differences between her rural and urban participants, with a generational effect. Her findings indicate that, for example, based on weight circumference, almost all mothers (rural and urban) would be considered obese (86.4%), but rural daughters were more likely to be underweight than urban daughters. One of Pitale’s surprising findings was in terms of blood pressure; contrary to expectations, rural mothers had higher blood pressure than urban mothers. This finding questions underlying assumptions that traditional diets and activity levels can help to minimise high blood pressure, while urbanized diets and lifestyles can increase it.

Overall, this is a rich dissertation that uses a range of data collection methods to create a complicated picture of the ways that food intersects with notions of the self, and health. Who should read this dissertation? This work is of interest to anyone who is thinking about how food practices shape and are shaped by everyday rural or urban life, and the implications that this has for how people think about their identities and health, and to those looking for an example of the complexities of economic liberalization, rural-urban differences, and caste in contemporary India. The thesis will also be of interest to researchers thinking about how to approach biocultural research projects, and how to integrate anthropometric and qualitative data within ethnography. As I read the dissertation, a number of questions emerged for me around some of the public elements of Pitale’s work, her findings, and her fieldwork experiences, and my review concludes with an interview addressing some of these questions.

Elizabeth Finnis (EF): Hi, Gauri! I enjoyed reading your doctoral work, and thank you for letting the SAFN blog host this review and an interview with you about your work and research experiences. My first question is something that I often ask people during (or immediately after!) a defense: Who would you hope would read your work, outside of anthropological audiences?

Gauri A. Pitale (GAP): I would love for everyone to read my dissertation because I certainly find it rather riveting a topic! Jokes apart, I think my study would be illuminating for those governmental agencies that are working on addressing problems related to the double-burden of overnutrition and undernutrition that India is facing. As a country, we [Indians] are leading in the numbers of deaths that are connected to CNCDs. The increasing encroachment of multi-national corporations that sell fast foods and ones that may result in the disappearance of small kirana (grocery) shops is concerning. India is in a precarious position. The coming two to three decades will vitally change the food consumption and the food distribution system of the entire country. Yes, certainly we should address the biological causes that make Indians susceptible to CNCDs. But if the government does not increase awareness among people, there is high likelihood that India will face the same challenges that western nations like the United States of America faced starting the 1970s and 1980s. On the one hand, we notice that an increasing number of urban Indians are becoming more and more conscious of how to maintain their health by going to dieticians and/or the gym. On the other hand, large swathes of Indians are turning to Ayurveda and traditional remedies to counter these same problems. It is my hope that this dissertation highlights how variable the answers can be within one country. Other than government agencies, I would also love for my research to be read by the Deorukhe community. I hope they find it useful. I have already given them a copy of my dissertation and am currently waiting to hear back from them.

EF: So, then what do you hope a non-anthropologist will really understand about your research?

GAP: When I explained my dissertation research focus to my Indian friends and family, their responses were rather interesting. Some found the research topic to be rather bland, while others thought that the information I was gathering was so commonplace that they couldn’t comprehend why it needed to be researched at all. Non-Indian friends and family also found the subject pale in comparison to studying the more “exotic” aspects of Indian culture and society. I soon realized that people take food for granted. While Indians have a medicinal system entrenched in food, westerners are usually more focused on the nutritional aspects of food. That said, food and eating has been and will always remain a social as well as an emotional experience. Though the relationship between food consumption and health seems like a straightforward one, my study demonstrates that making any sort of policy decisions to control or even address the rising appearance of Chronic Non-Communicable Disorders (CNCDs) will remain hopelessly abstruse if we disregard the historical, ecological, political, as well as the economic aspects of why people eat the way they do. Certainly, there are a multitude of factors involved but a deep understanding of the issue on both a local and global level is valid and necessary. To actually affect change, we need to start making lay people aware of this simple fact: food and the body are not things that can be studied bereft of their social surroundings.

EF: Your answer makes me think a bit about how the participants in your research thought about blood pressure and mental/emotional stress. You argue that for your participants, particularly the rural ones, high blood pressure is considered related to mental and emotional stress, and is therefore seen as a temporary condition. Are there bigger implications of this understanding of high blood pressure?

GAP: This is one of the aspects of my study that surprised me immensely. I hypothesized that high blood pressure would be more common among urban participants in comparison to rural participants. This is in line with published research doing a comparative analysis between urban and rural populations. Therefore, the results of my data collection coupled with my experiences in the field were atypical and confusing. My rural interlocutors did view high blood pressure to be the result of a temporary condition. These people were also going to rural medical practitioners. I wish I had the time to visit these doctors to ascertain whether they had actually told the interlocutors that this was a temporary condition. The main thing that concerned me was, if hypertension was being viewed as a temporary health issue occurring as a result of stress, then treating it accordingly might result in more health complications in the long run.

More importantly, the implications of this perspective are two-fold. One, if and when a complication does occur in the future when these women are older, the problem would be treated as something to be expected because high blood pressure is seen as a chronic health condition that plagues old people. Two, most studies expect hypertension to be a condition that is commonly noted among urban people; rural people suffering from the same condition might not even be considered to be at risk. This could mean that they will never be tested or treated until a complication arises. A large part of rural India bears the burden of undernutrition. The Deorukhes are comparatively well-off thanks to their caste status. Therefore, we must also acknowledge this occurrence of hypertension among this rural population might not be something that applies to people of all castes in rural India. For all of these reasons, it is highly likely that these conditions will not be noticed anytime soon. This concerns and worries me, especially in connection to their long-term health and their quality of life.

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Photograph: Gauri A. Pitale – Roadside fruit seller, Mumbai

EF: I found it interesting to read your brief discussion of the guilt felt by some mothers if they don’t – or can’t – cook for their children. Do you think similar feelings can play out in different kinds of households, both within and outside of India? What makes it different (or not) for your participants?

GAP: What a fantastic question! I am happy you asked me this. The guilt felt by mothers is certainly not unique to Indian culture. There are many cultures in which I assume women experience guilt that corresponds with the diet and health of their family members. I assume because having grown up in India, I experience this guilt and deal with it on a day-to-day basis. I believe the difference lies in how my participants experience this within the social dynamics of Indian society. I am certain women in other cultures also have certain expectations that are thrust upon them. In the case of my interlocutors however, there is the added layer of caste-related food prescriptions. The expectation that Deorukhe Brahmin women in general have to safeguard household purity is a larger part of this guilt. Women have to learn to prepare traditional foods so that they can pass on traditions to daughters and daughters-in-law. And while every culture has a family recipe that can be learned from elders in the family, how integral these recipes are to one’s communal identity changes from one culture to another.

I can give you an example of something that occurred in my own family. I happened to visit the family of a friend who was of a lower caste. They invited me for dinner one evening. I remember that her mom had made some type of shellfish that I had never tried before. I found it to be rather delicious. Upon returning home my grandmother promptly asked me what had been served for dinner. I told her about this unheard-of shellfish and asked my mother why she never cooked this fish at home. My grandmother immediately replied, “We don’t buy that kind of fish. Those are eaten by lower caste people.” Until that moment, I had no idea that my friend belonged to a different caste group at all. But my grandmother deemed it necessary to educate me about the differences in upper and lower caste fish consumption at the age of 10, lest I make any such demands again. These conversations are ubiquitous in rural and urban Indian households. The guilt felt at crossing these boundaries is an additional aspect of the guilt felt by my interlocutors. It may not be unique to India because I am sure this kind of gate-keeping also occurs in other world cultures. The difference may be in the amount of social consequences that result from women’s failure to control the food that enters their households in general and into the bodies of their family members in particular.

EF: I also appreciated the methodological and positionality reflections that you incorporate into your dissertation. For example, you write about how, when collecting data, you were positioned as the ‘expert’, but that when you entered kitchens, you became understood as lacking in experience and basic knowledge. What did this kind of ‘flip’ in perceptions of expertise teach you about doing ethnographic research?

GAP: The first lesson that I learned when I went into the field was that people tell you what they think you want to hear. This is a lesson we all learn as anthropologists, and that’s why we spend so much time getting comfortable with our interlocutors and participating in their lives as we observe them. My fieldwork was incredibly fruitful. Despite that, my appearance as an Indian woman who lived in America and had come back to India to study the Deorukhes put me in an interesting position. In one part of the introduction chapter of my dissertation, I discuss my position and the social capital that I had which resulted in the Deorukhes allowing me into their homes. However, my familiarity, while at times a disadvantage, was also an advantage in this case. I want to be clear that I’m not implying that non-native anthropologists may not have used this strategy to make their interlocutors comfortable. But the fact remains that the conversations about food and food habits that I had with Deorukhe mothers lacked the depth that I found satisfying. I also realized that talking in their living rooms about food often resulted in the whole family, and in some case entire neighborhoods, monitoring the interaction. The resultant conversation was stunted and awkward, something I noticed as I started transcribing my field recordings. I was spending more time asking questions and directing conversations rather than getting answers.

The request to enter their kitchens to watch them cook was put forth for two main reasons. One, not everyone is allowed entry into each other’s household kitchens. The audience had to leave or wait outside in the living room, allowing me and the woman to be alone or at least have fewer people around. This was something I noticed in one household during my first visit. I went into the kitchen to return a cup of coffee to the lady of the house. She told me where to place the dirty cup in the kitchen and promptly started amending some of her answers. Her husband and some men in the village were sitting outside in the living room hearing us talk. In the kitchen, she started complaining about how difficult it is to manage the food habits of her husband. It became obvious that the kitchen was her domain and the one place she felt safe to voice her opinions without being overheard, especially by the men since they rarely ventured into this space. The second reason was to reduce the awkwardness of sitting and talking without having anything to do. Most of my interlocutors were happy to show off their kitchens to me. No matter how small or large, how fancy or simple, these were their spaces, arranged to their liking, and spaces that they controlled. Also, if they kept busy, I assumed our discussions would be more fruitful. The dynamic shift was an unexpected discovery. As soon as I noticed it, I immediately began to ponder on the manner in which their assumption of my inexperience in matters related to running a household relaxed them and made them want to impart knowledge to me.

Present day anthropology has come a long way from what we thought about our interlocutors to how we perceive them today. They are the experts from whom we learn. I went into the field with that point of view. And while I fully intended to carry out semi-structured interviews, I also had a long list of questions prepared so that I could collect data on food acquisition patterns. I still have this data. I have piles of data about how much rice, flour, lentils, masalas, etc. each household buys. I also have data about the money each household spends on food and other food acquisition pattern information. While I meticulously collected this data in the field, I also realized that for me, the deep ethnographic data that started to shine and capture my attention was what I encountered in the kitchens as I watched women cook. These discussions and interactions were far more rewarding and indicative of what they wanted to tell me. I chose to focus on their voices rather than only focus on my initial study objectives. What this taught me is that it is important to go into the field with specific objectives. However, it is equally important to allow our interlocutors to tell us what they deem to be important for us to know. In between these two points is where the actual fun and research lies!

EF: In focusing on the health of women, did you ever get participants wondering why you weren’t also considering the health of men? If yes, in what kinds of ways did you respond to these queries?

GAP: The Deorukhe community did initially assume that my research was about the entire household. I would have very much liked to have focused on entire households because the data gathered would have been richer, especially ethnographically speaking. There were, however, several restrictions. For one, my study was self-funded, which meant I could only spend a certain amount of time in the field. For statistical reasons, I needed to recruit at least 35 families from both rural and urban settings. I also needed to visit each family at least three times to note seasonal changes in their diet as well as their anthropometric measurements. All of this really restricted my ability to spend more time with each family. The more people I needed to meet, the more difficult it was to find time to meet with them. The men of the household, especially rural men, often controlled my access to their wives and daughters in the initial stages of my study. Though I was requesting the women to be a part of my study, in many rural families the men closely monitored the initial conversations. In one household in particular, the women and her daughters never uttered a single word in reply until the husband said, “Alright, go ahead and add us to your list of participants.”

Restricting the study to women and girls was something that I had already discussed with my advisors and committee members. This is because ease of access to my interlocutors and the ability to hold conversations in both public and private was important to me. There is a high amount of gender segregation in India. As a woman, it was easier for me to get access to and speak with young girls and women. Conversations with men were not impossible but these took place more in urban settings rather than rural settings. As for your question about whether participants wondered about why my research did not consider men, they did not. That is because I told them when I was recruiting that I was focusing on women because they were the gastronomic gate-keepers and the ones in charge of managing the household’s food consumption patterns. This made sense to my interlocutors. From their perspective, I was not only measuring their and their daughters’ bodies, but at the same time I was discussing with them the health of their entire family. My interlocutors often told me how they managed to ensure their sons, husbands, or fathers-in-law stayed healthy. This was vital to their discussions about the various challenges that they face when trying to keep their families healthy, a responsibility not to be taken lightly.

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Photograph: Gauri A. Pitale – Food court of a mall, Mumbai

EF: Your picture of changing food habits among your participant households is both rich, and, as you indicate yourself, patchy in some ways. What’s next for you, in terms of research?

GAP: This is a wonderful question! I loved every minute of my fieldwork and found interacting with the Deorukhe community in general to be a very rewarding experience. As a doctoral candidate who went into the field for her first long-term fieldwork, I experienced a lot of anxiety when things did not go as planned. The lack of both time and money was on the forefront of my mind. This meant that as much as possible, I collected every piece of information that I could. Along the way, I also collected large swathes of data about factors that I had not even considered to be influential to my research results. This is a large reason for why my research results are rich and at the same time provide a patchy picture. I think that is the strength of ethnographic fieldwork. I struggled to make sense of the enormous amount of information that I gathered during my fieldwork after I returned to America. After much contemplation and several discussions with my advisors and doctoral committee members, it became clear that the only way I could write this dissertation, for me, was by focusing on things that my interlocutors spoke about the most. Those are the things I have written about. I am happy with the way my dissertation has turned out, but it honestly only speaks about 30% of the information that I have gathered during my fieldwork.

Going forward I will publish chapters of my dissertation. Someday soon, I would also like to return to the field with funding so that I can fill in the gaps that currently exist, while also noting the changes that have taken place since 2014. And while I want to continue working with the Deorukhe community, I would also like to add another caste group, preferably people who are meat-eaters. This might allow for a richer and better comparative analysis. In an India that is experiencing large-scale dietary changes, I would like to see how the idea of purity and caste identities continues to play out. That would enable us, as food anthropologists, to really study the communal tension that underlies the study of food and culture in modern day India.

EF: Thank you, Gauri, for your responses, and for your contributions to the SAFN blog!

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Filed under anthropology, book reviews, cooking, cuisine, culture, diabetes, food and health, gender, India, nutrition, obesity

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.

***

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.”

***

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

Zucchini as a Gateway Drug: Cultivating food security in Iowa through gardening

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Elizabeth Danforth Richey, PhD, MPH and Angie Tagtow MS, LD, RD
Iowa Food Systems Council, info@cultivateiowa.org

Do more with less. This mantra has become virtually universal in public health and social programming. In the face of the obesity epidemic and rising food insecurity, food pantries are increasingly taking on the role of nutrition educator and healthy lifestyle coach. Unfortunately, this work is expected to be done without the necessary resources. When healthy eating messages are provided in emergency feeding settings, too much of the food distributed through these networks is processed, shelf-stable foods with limited nutritional value. A food pantry staff explained, “It’s hard to ask clients to do something and not be able to give them the right foods to do it.”

One approach to creating accessible, affordable and healthy food environments is food gardening. Food gardening has become increasingly popular among community-and faith-based organizations, workplaces, schools, and among the general public. Food gardening can not only provide food insecure household with fresh local produce, but it can also infuse food bank and pantry food supplies with healthier foods through produce donation.

cultivateia_newspaper_ad_gardenersIn 2012, the Iowa Food Systems Council (IFSC) received a grant from the Wellmark Foundation to create a social marketing campaign to encourage food gardening as a way to increase the amount of healthy local produce in the food system accessed by food insecure Iowans. The goals of this campaign are to encourage: 1) low-resource Iowans to engage in food gardening and 2) gardeners to donate extra produce to emergency feeding networks (food banks and pantries) in their community. The project was designed and implemented by the IFSC’s Food Access and Health Work Group, a community of practice of 250-some partners engaged in some aspect of household or community food security research and/or programming. The multidisciplinary nature of community-based food security programming lent itself to an anthropological approach to understanding target communities within political, economic, historical, cultural and environmental contexts.

Project funding provided the luxury of 12 months of initial mixed-methods research to assess how messages could be effectively conveyed and the content of a social marketing campaign for each target audience. The assessment investigated the multi-layered challenges related to accessing healthy food, perspectives on gardening and produce consumption, produce donation, accessing fresh produce at food pantries, and other factors that could influence message distribution.

Key findings from the assessment were used as the basis for the state-wide social marketing campaign, including:

  • Broad partner support exists for the campaign, but financial and staffing challenges limit the expansion of garden promotion at an organizational level. 
  • There is low staff/client interaction time at emergency feeding locations.
  • Cost is the main barrier to housing, household resources, and food choice, all of which impact produce consumption rates among food-insecure Iowans.
  • Low-resource Iowans lack space for yard-based gardening, and perceive gardening as a time consuming activity.
  • Gardeners lack awareness of produce donation activities in their community, but are very supportive of the idea.
  • Gardeners are have specific concerns related to produce use and liability.

An executive summary of the initial research can be accessed here.

A marketing team took the key findings identified by researchers, and created the Cultivate Iowa campaign. This campaign was designed to be fun, positive and broad based. Rather than explicitly focusing on gardening as a way for resource-poor people to become less food insecure, it aims to provide general messages about cost savings, ease, and low-input gardening strategies. Implementation strategies, rather than the messages themselves, will target desired audiences. For example, materials will be distributed at WIC clinics and food pantries, and billboards will be placed in low-resource areas. Produce donation messages will focus on community engagement and donating any amount available. Cultivate Iowa aims to empower both low-resource and gardener audiences; a main concern is to avoid paternalistic or negative messages. As a key informant explained, “Zucchini is a gateway drug. Once you get growers hooked on how good donating feels, they will find other produce to share as well.”

The Cultivate Iowa campaign was launched on April 19, and will continue through the 2013 growing season. It will be promoted statewide through the Food Access and Health Work Group. Partner resources include campaign talking points, promotional items, brochures, postcards, posters, and vegetable seeds. In addition, a public and social media strategy will be implemented, including radio and TV, billboards, newspaper ads, Facebook and Twitter.

Beyond the marketing campaign, the initial research identified other issues cultivateia_poster2integral to the success of the campaign, such as supporting food pantries to expand their produce acceptance practices, promoting food panties to register at AmpleHarvest (think on-line dating for gardeners and food pantries), and creating educational materials about safe produce handling and storage practices.

So, how can you engage with the campaign? Regardless of where you live, visit the website to learn how you can cheaply and easily increase the fresh local foods in your diet. Pledge to donate produce in your community and find the nearest produce donation site to you. Help to support local and state level policy that creates garden-friendly communities, including public garden space, and tax incentives for commercial and private produce donation. More information about the campaign can be found at www.cultivateiowa.org.

Research will continue to assess the campaign’s impact on food gardening and produce donation in the state. Future strategies may include more focused efforts to promote state and local gardening-related policy, increasing engagement of retail partners, and more targeted messaging to specific populations such as SNAP users. (A little known fact is that SNAP benefits can be used to purchase edible plants and seeds.) Bringing anthropology to the table has worked to create a more effective program that situates the program objectives within the larger social structures in which the target audiences exist. Ultimately, our goal is to continue to encourage Iowans to Plant. Grow. Share. and to Plant. Grow. Save.

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Filed under agriculture, anthropology, economics, farming, food pantries, food security, gardening, markets, methods, nutrition, obesity, policy, SAFN Member Research, sustainability

Solving the World Food Crisis

IRAS image
THE INSTITUTE ON RELIGION IN AN AGE OF SCIENCE
Fifty-ninth Annual Summer Conference
Silver Bay, New York
July 27 to August 3, 2013
 

Co-Chairs: Solomon H Katz and Pat Bennett

Food occupies a central place in human life. Not only are its nutrients necessary for our survival, but feasting, fasting, and sharing are integral to our history, cultural identity, and religious traditions. Yet, today, and for the foreseeable future, nearly half of the world’s people cannot enjoy the fullness of their potential due to problems with food affordability, safety, and access. Serious problems with food production and price increases currently leave about one billion people experiencing hunger, and many of them facing starvation. Another billion spend over half their entire income on food, but still have only marginally enough to eat. Yet, concurrently, at least another billion people in the world are experiencing problems from consuming too much food and/or from dietary imbalances and safety problems that result in serious chronic diseases and infections.

Among the questions to be addressed at this conference are the following:

  • What are the origins and evolution of human diet and the food system, and how does this knowledge provide new insights about our contemporary food problems?
  • What is the status of world food resources? How does it relate to macro and micro food problems locally and nationally in the United States and throughout the world?
  • How does food serve as a symbol and a substance of various religious traditions? Has the loss of social traditions surrounding food production, preparation and consumption contributed to the problems noted above?
  • How can the human food system be made more sustainable? How can healthy diets be safely and economically made available to all humanity? How can new scientific and medical knowledge optimally help with sustainability, safety, and access?
  • What are the tensions created by climate change; population growth; demographic change; global trade and commodity pricing; market and business forces; water management; energy resources; food to fuel; new GMO technologies; agricultural practices; land use and agricultural practices; increased meat, dairy, and egg production; food sovereignty at local, national, and international levels; increased socio-political interests; and the demands for human rights and just food policies?
  • What secular and religious ethics and values can help to balance and/or solve food problems at all levels of the food system? What human and institutional resources are now available or need to be developed to catalyze meaningful solutions to food problems?
  • What are the potentials of a combined science and religion approach to achieving sustainable solutions to world food problems?

One of the conference’s aims is to derive, develop, and disseminate a statement of principles for achieving sustainable solutions to some of these issues, based on such a combined approach;  and to issue an accompanying call to appropriate action at personal and communal levels.

An IRAS conference is a rather unique interdisciplinary experience, combining serious cutting-edge talks with many opportunities for in-depth discussions and workshops, as well as relaxed, informal conversation. Most speakers spend the entire week at the conference, giving plenty of opportunity to follow-up points over coffee and meals. Also, since conferees represent a wide spectrum of disciplines in the sciences and humanities, as well as coming from many different religious traditions, discussions are eclectic, stimulating and sometimes robust! And alongside the hard work of thinking and talking, and our traditional reflective sessions, there’s plenty of less serious stuff to enjoy too – music, art, laughter and jokes at Happy Hour, and all the rich and varied recreational facilities on offer to us guests at Silver Bay.

The deadline for poster proposals is April 19, 2013 and for workshop proposals is May 6, 2013. Visit the conference website for additional information, including a list of confirmed speakers that include several SAFN members.

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Filed under anthropology, Call for Papers, culture, economics, farming, food policy, food security, Food Studies, foodways, GMO food, markets, nutrition, obesity, sustainability

Some Food Issues for Some Developmentally Disabled People

I am both an anthropologist and a clinical psychologist.  In my latter role, I have treated people from many different populations. Some of them are marginal in many ways. In this post, I want to refer to a special population with whom I have worked—the developmentally disabled.  This population has been interesting from an anthropological perspective for a long time.  One should go to medical and psychological anthropologist Robert Edgerton’s The Cloak of Competence: Stigma in the Lives of the Mentally Retarded (University of California Press, revised edition 1993).  This anthropologically groundbreaking work focused on how developmentally disabled people coped with being labeled and  excluded, as well as not being able to function at the same level as other people.  Anthropologists concern themselves with populations at the borders of society; consequently, developmentally disabled people are deserving of study in terms of social issues.

In this post, I am drawing on my work with people who are medium to high functioning.  This is my clientele.  They live either in group homes, worthy of study as a social institution in their own right, with parents even as adults, or independently. They have some food problems which I think may be of interest to anthropologists of food and nutrition.  Moreover, they share some behaviors with other populations which put them at health risk, which is of interest to medical anthropology, medical personnel, and policy makers.

First, many developmentally disabled people are significantly under or overweight.  (For a discussion of obesity among the developmentally disabled, click here.) There may be a variety of reasons for this condition.  Developmentally disabled people may have significant genetic or hormonal imbalances, which then lead to weight problems.  A person may have Williams Syndrome, for example, which can involve hypercalcemia syndrome and hypertension. Williams people may have shorter lifespans as well.

Second, a person may have poor impulse control.  Part of this lack of impulse control may result in the need for instant or quick satisfaction.  I’ve noticed many of my clients tend to eat fast food and a lot of it.  It’s salty, greasy, without fruits and vegetables, and often not especially nutritious.  Moreover, in many areas, those who live “independently” live in apartments close to fast food restaurants and, if they are lucky, near supermarkets.  Other researchers have seen that this pattern of residential dwelling and food consumption leads to obesity (cf. Hurvitz et al.: 2009).

Third, quite often, many developmentally disabled people have been sexually molested.  Sexual molestation can lead to a variety of eating disorders, including obesity, anorexia, bulimia, and self-injurious behavior (for more information on the connection between sexual abuse and eating disorders, see Cohen n.d.  http://www.edreferral.com/sexual_abuse_&_ed.htm).

The result is that person may have significant food-related problems.  These problems raise the risk of food-related diseases, including Type II diabetes, back, and joint problems.  Furthermore, given the frequent lack of impulse control, a person may aggravate these conditions by not eating correctly and not following doctor’s orders.  If a person is taking some antidepressants, the person may experience weight gain.  The additional weight may also aggravate many medical conditions.

There may be also additional complications. According to Bouverie Dental, often the person has poor dental hygiene problems. S/he may rarely brush and/or floss and rarely see a dentist or dental hygienist.  Some relatively recent research that poor dental practices can intensify the risk of Type II diabetes (See this web posting for a longer discussion of this issue: http://www.dentalclinicofmarshfield.com/poor-dental-hygiene-leads-other-health-problems.)  Medicaid cuts worsen the dental situation; they also reduce the possibility of seeing physicians and specialists.

Some states have regional centers or similar programs which help higher functioning people live either in group homes or on their own.  Some philanthropists have started to donate small buttons that seniors can signal their need for help, the medical alert reviews show that seniors in distress with such technology have a much greater chance of getting the help they need by the time they need it. Caregivers or provider agency staff can help the person maintain better food buying and cooking practices.  Often, however, people go out on their own and “binge eat” terribly.  Ideally, they can get further help by going to psychological therapy, most often behaviorist-focused.

Thus, this special population incurs special risks.  As anthropologists, we need to be alert to the personal and policy needs of these people.

Comments by Richard Zimmer

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Filed under anthropology, disability, nutrition, obesity, psychology

Rethinking School Lunch

USA School Lunch: Applesauce, chocolate milk, hash browns, and chicken nuggets, from http://interestingemailforwards.blogspot.com/2009/05/school-lunch-from-around-world.html

It has been many years since I last confronted a school lunch. While I can recall some spectacular lunchroom antics from my school years, I do not remember the food with any pleasure at all. Not the greasy pizza. Not the canned peaches served, mysteriously, with revolting cottage cheese. Not the jello. Well, maybe the jello, but more as a projectile than as food.

I have no idea where the food came from. I don’t know if it was cooked locally or distributed by a central kitchen. To be honest, I was not really paying that much attention at the time. There were more important things to consider. See my point about jello above. In any case, nobody seemed to care. Students were meant to eat and move on. We did.

Food activists have been trying hard recently to make people more aware of what kids eat in their school lunches.  Alice Waters, of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, for example, started a campaign in California to get kids involved in producing their own food. Beginning over a decade ago with an “edible schoolyard” in Berkeley, Waters created a foundation (the Chez Panisse Foundation) that focused on improving school lunch by making it a real part of the curriculum.  Another famous chef, Jamie Oliver, launched a campaign to improve “school dinners” in the United Kingdom and has had some notable success as well as some colorful resistance. He also turned his campaign into a kind of reality TV show and brought it to the U.S., much to the consternation of the folks who make school lunches in Los Angeles.  There have been many more local efforts to improve school food around the country, too many to note here, and quite a lot of blog traffic on the subject, including this site devoted to school lunches around the world. There has been some notable recent research in this area as well. Janet Poppendieck’s recent book, Free for All: Fixing School Food in America (2010, University of California Press), provides very useful insights into the history of and debate around school lunches in the U.S. Wendy Leynse has studied and written about the place of school lunch in France, where it seems to hold a more important place in school curricula. The Food Museum Online has a very comprehensive exhibit devoted to school lunch reform that is very much worth exploring.

One of the more striking recent developments in this movement, however, has been an effort to turn kids into school lunch activists. Here in New Orleans, a group called the Rethinkers have, since 2006, involved actual kids in efforts to rethink (whence the name) public education. One of their central issues has been school lunch.  In 2008, the Rethinkers put together a list of 12 recommendations for the local public schools and managed to get the superintendent to agree to most of them.  They have worked quite effectively to keep their recommendations in the public eye, creating recipes with chefs to suggest for the schools, meeting with Aramark (one of the enormous corporations that holds local school lunch preparation contracts) to persuade them to use local produce and issuing reports evaluating the food served at schools around town. Their most recent report provides a detailed evaluation of the food at several local schools, along with policy recommendations, critiques of where lunch food comes from and very good analyses of why food and the dining experience in schools should be improved. The entire excellent report is available on line.

It is interesting to see what the Rethinkers think is important.  Here is a summary of their 12 recommendations for schools:

  1. Use real utensils (no more sporks).
  2. Buy fresh, tasty food that is minimally processed.
  3. Use ingredients that have been sourced within 200 miles of New Orleans.
  4. Put more New Orleans and Louisiana dishes on the menu.
  5. Provide better vegetarian alternatives.
  6. Stop using Styrofoam.
  7. Develop school gardens and grow some food for the school.
  8. Compost leftovers.
  9. Design school cafeterias to be welcoming places where you might like to eat.
  10. Provide sinks where kids can wash their hands.
  11. Provide enough time for kids to enjoy their food and the company of their friends.
  12. No silent lunches. Food and dining should not be used to punish students.

The key thing to note here is that this is clearly about a great deal more than what students will get to eat. It is about where their food comes from, how it is prepared and disposed of, the dining context and the educational experience itself. It is about getting students, teachers, administrators and parents to be more self-conscious about food. In New Orleans, a city that is very self-conscious about food in general, this movement is helping remind people that kids do not have to leave behind their own culture at the school doors.  And by getting hundreds of kids involved in evaluating school lunches and rethinking what and how they eat, the Rethinkers are already succeeding in putting food on the curriculum.

One last thing worth noting: the never-ending debates about the crisis in public education in the United States usually focuses on issues like standardized test scores and what many people see as the “fundamentals” of education, like reading and math. Food is about as fundamental as it gets. The Rethinkers are calling attention to this.

Posted by David Beriss

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Filed under anthropology, culture, food policy, heritage, nutrition, obesity

Reflections on Food and Gastric Bypass Surgery Assessments

I’m writing this piece wearing two hats.  Yes, I am a card-carrying anthropologist with all that entails.  I’m also a licensed clinical psychologist.  In the latter role, I’ve been doing psychological assessments for gastric bypass and laparoscopy. These surgeries are increasing in number.  Furthermore, they are being given to teenagers and contemplated for younger children.  For many years, a patient who was going to get these surgeries had to go through a psych assessment before proceeding. I wanted to tell you what I do in these assessments. My questions involve food and the person’s relationship to food.

First, the intake questions focus on the person’s family history.  How does the patient view food culturally? How does it fit into their social life?  What specifically do they eat that we can see as “culturally-based eating?” Is the person’s family of origin prone to obesity?  (BTW, the politically correct term is severe, not morbid, obesity.)

Is there a psychiatric history of the person and family members? At times I’ve given a test to assess stability. Then I’ve asked what medications the person is taking.  This last point is crucial, because many medications, such as anti-depressants put on weight.  Is there a family history of Type II diabetes?   Has the person gone to the primary care physician and been tested for any kind of thyroid abnormalities?  What natural supplements are the person taking (and have they told their physician), since these supplements, too, can have side effects affecting weight, diet, and other medical conditions?

Second, the questions focus on the success or failure of different kinds of diets.  For the most part, the person has gone through many diets, none of which has worked.  The question is why.  Yes, the patient has told the doctor this.  But I ask them about their present eating habits.  I review their daily meals.  Despite the fact that they are preparing for surgery, many of them are still eating “badly” too much fat, salt, and random and inadequate meals.  Many people tend to drink caffeinated drinks.  Even though they don’t have sugar, caffeine can stimulate a sugar response as well as a cycle of highs and lows.

Third, the questions focus on whether the person has had a significant psychiatric and substance abuse history. Quite often, for example, the person has been sexually abused.  The purpose of these questions is to find out whether the person will follow instructions post-surgery, since violating instructions, i.e., eating too much and the wrong kinds of food can put the surgery at risk.

Fourth, the questions focus on how the person chooses to get medical information.  Does the person want it in written form, orally, and/or visually? Does the patient want a friend to come to the doctor’s office to help them with information?

Fifth, the questions focus on who is going to help the person post-surgery.  This is particularly important since the person may be incapacitated for a while.  Equally important, the patient is queried on family dynamics. One often finds that a patient’s partner “enables” the obesity by wanting the person to be overweight. There are lots of reasons for this.  The partner may want a larger person as their significant other.  The partner and the patient may be avoiding having sex because of the weight issue and other factors. I also ask the patient how s/he will deal with their new body at work and in their social life.  As is often the case, obese people are ignored, and changing one’s weight makes a person visible.  My impression after doing these assessments for over ten years is that this is a more sensitive issue for women than men. Men tend to be seen as more visible, women, less so.  Again, this gender difference worsens as people get older, more so for women.

I follow up several months later to see how the person is doing.  The follow-up reviews both weight and food compliance and family dynamics.   The purpose of the follow-up is to help the person maintain compliance and achieve success.

I’ve tried to be general here.  I look forward to specific comments and questions, because there are more physical and psychological concerns that are involved.  I’ve noticed that they can affect each gender differently.

Comments by Richard Zimmer

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Filed under anthropology, obesity, psychology