Tuesday, October 16, 2012

World Food Day in Rwanda!

Whether you know it or not, today (October 16) is World Food Day! Last year, I celebrated it with a delicious potluck at Oxfam America. I thought I’d share my view of World Food Day from the other side of the globe this year.

You’ve probably heard buzzwords like “eating locally” “organic” and “all-natural” thrown around in the U.S. While those things are certainly having a moment, they unfortunately tend to be associated only with places like Whole Foods and elitist WASPs shopping at overcrowded urban farmers markets.

Well, I’m in a small village in Rwanda, and organic, local, and all-natural is the only possible way to eat here. There are no grocery stores or refrigerators or packaging. Pesticides and GMO crops would be incredibly expensive. If it’s not in season, you simply can’t get it. We have market just two days a week, where you can buy fruits (pineapple, passion fruit, bananas, and tree tomatoes), veggies (tomatoes, avocados, onions, plantains, carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, cassava, a bitter leafy green called dodo and these small and really bitter eggplants called inorgi), rice, beans, tiny dried fish, flours, eggs, and meat (blood, bones, guts, and all: there’s no boneless skinless chicken breasts in a nice little refrigerated package). That’s pretty much it.

A fairly typical meal (with the green beans replaced by rice)

This sounds all fine and well, except that once you’ve been exposed to the smorgasbord of American food, every thing you could possibly imagine, available almost 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, it’s hard to return to a rotation of plain beans, rice, plantains, cassava, potatoes, cooked cabbage, and carrots 7 days a week. I have a breakfast of tea, bananas, and white bread, then lunch and dinner with some combination of the above things. Every. Single. Day. I literally dream about American food at night. If someone invented an app that blocked all pictures and status-updates of food from my Facebook friends back home, I would buy it. (And THIS is exactly how I really feel when people talk about food back home!) I fantasize about being in an American grocery store, or back in my family’s well-equipped kitchen back in the U.S. 

I’ll be the first one to admit that I miss the incredible availability of chocolate, anything frozen or even remotely cold, cheese, and baked goods. I swear I will never again eat a bite of cooked cabbage after leaving Rwanda in two years. The idea of having pizza delivered to my doorstep at any hour of the day seems like a laughable concept to me here, like when you wake up from a really weird dream and you’re not sure if it’s real or not. But I had an experience that kinda scared me a little bit with regards to American food.

A friend of mine received a care package from her Mom a couple months ago and she was gracious enough to share the contents with me (trust me, this is no small gesture: thanks Jamie and Jamie’s Mom!). We gorged ourselves on Starbursts, Skittles, crackers, energy bars, everything. It was delicious; until I tasted the rainbow again the next day and it didn’t taste as good coming up. I had to take a day off work I was having such horrible stomach cramps. It was my second time getting sick in Rwanda, but it wasn’t because of Rwandan food. It was the artificial colors, sugars, and flavors of some (rather delicious) American junk food.

Corn drying in the sun

There has to be a middle ground. I love the availability of ingredients in the U.S. I love the creativity and diversity you can find in American cuisine; the clash and co-existence of so many wonderful cultures in the same place. But it’s also clear that our way of doing things is unsustainable in the long-term, and it’s harming Americans’ health and the environment. We top the charts of diabetes and heart disease, and we tip the scales in rates of obesity. We live in a land of skinny supermodels splashed across media, entire magazines devoted to weight loss, “diet foods” in every supermarket (a mysterious category of processed food that doesn’t exist here), and fast food drive-thrus on every corner. Everything is cleaned, packaged, processed, waxed, colored, flavored, and advertised. And despite this, we waste a huge proportion of it: the USDA estimates that Americans waste 96 BILLION pounds of food per year.  All of this, while over half the planet goes to bed hungry every night (including 17.2 million food insecure families in America). It’s pretty to clear to me after being in Rwanda for five months: our global food system is broken.

Cassava. Not a huge fan. 

So to celebrate World Food Day here in Rwanda, I led a discussion about nutrition at my Health Club meeting. We made a list of all the foods that are available here (depending on the seasons, obviously) and divided them up according to fats, proteins, and carbohydrates. We talked about ways to ensure that they’re eating enough calories in a day (eating more avocados, drinking milk), and we talked about vitamins and micronutrients and how to get them (i.e. eating fruit along with beans because Vitamin C aids in iron absorption). They asked me about food in America, and I had no idea where to begin. It was like trying to explain snow to my English Club a few weeks ago, in a place where temperatures rarely fall below 55 degrees Fahrenheit, and there’s basically no refrigeration. 

World Food Day with my students! 

They were shocked when I told them I’d never had cassava, igikoma (a watery porridge made of sorghum flour), dodo (a bitter leafy grain), or tree tomatoes before coming to Rwanda, and even more shocked when I told them how much an avocado or pineapple costs in America (“Teacher, it is not true!”). Even though some of my students were at first confused about how America can import lots of food from countries around the world, I think it began to make sense when I put it in a personal context: many of my students’ families grow coffee beans that are exported to America, and many of them have never tasted a real cup of coffee. Growing a cash crop like coffee can be good when world coffee prices are high and when farmers get a fair share, but when prices fall, the consequences can be devastating. All in all, it was a very interesting discussion, and I feel like I gained as much, if not more, knowledge as my students.

   My neighbors processing coffee beans

I am not an economist, agronomist, doctor, nutritionist, or a chef, and I’m mildly uncomfortable with the term “foodie.” But it’s quite obvious that things need to change. We need an accessible food system that promotes health, ensures food and worker safety, emphasizes sustainability, treats farmers fairly, and enables everyone to get enough calories to survive and thrive. And we can't wait for it. 

 A rice farmer near my site

If you’re interested in working on changing our current, broken food system which has created a world of the stuffed and the starved, take a look at Oxfam America’s GROW campaign. Sometimes global hunger can be a hard thing to wrap your head around. What are the root causes of hunger? Why is our system broken? How can we fix it? They’ve researched the root causes and simplified it so it’s easy to understand. And best of all, they offer real, lasting solutions. Take a look here.

Happy World Food Day!


  1. This article is awesome! Thank you! I laughed a lot, but it is true, it is a very serious issue - the lack of transparency and global understanding in the American food system. Thanks for delving into that. I hope you're doing well!

  2. Thanks Elizabeth! Glad you enjoyed it :)