Thursday, April 14, 2011

Veggie Might: Eating Thoughtfully and Gratefully

Written by the fabulous Leigh, Veggie Might is a weekly Thursday column about all things Vegetarian.

Y’all, I’m still thinking about how eagerly and joyfully you came toAline’s aid last week. You proved that it takes very little to make a real and tangible difference in someone's life. Often, when we see ads on TV for starving children or sick animals, we turn off because the situations seem hopeless. But Aline is a real girl with a real need and your $5 and $10 donations were plenty to change her life for the better. Betsy recommends Give a Little: How Your Small Donations Can Transform Our World for more on giving small to make a difference.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Aline and the girls at the Ubushobozi Project lately in regards to food too. My dear friends Betsy and Dolinda have been volunteering at the Ubushobozi Project in Ruhengeri, Rwanda for several years, and this summer I’m riding their coattails to Africa to teach knitting, crochet, writing, and English to the girls. (Fingers crossed they’ll teach me to dance.)

As a vegetarian, one of my primary travel concerns is what I will eat away from home. I admit it’s a little crazy, but that was my first question for Betsy about going to Rwanda—not Is it safe? or What kind of shots do I need?, but What can I eat there?

I think about food a lot: because it’s my job as a food blogger, because I’m a vegetarian, because I’m frugal and always looking for ways to save, and because I love to eat. Sometimes I worry that all this thinking about food borders on psychosis. You’ll often find me planning supper while eating lunch or discussing one meal while partaking in another. My boyfriend laughs, “I don’t know what I’ll want to eat later; I’m not hungry now.” But I can always think and talk and plan and drool about food.

When I asked what they eat in Rwanda, Betsy took my query seriously and told me I’d be fine: that they eat primarily a starch-based diet of potatoes, rice, beans, fresh vegetables, and very little meat; and that no one would be offended if I passed on the stewed goat. There is also a contingent of Seventh Day Adventists, which means vegetarians are common. “You may get invited to church,” she added with a laugh.

Then I started worrying. Maybe I should pack granola bars. I need to eat every few hours or I get headaches. Then Betsy told Kristen and me about Aline and her backyard kitchen.

In case you missed it, Aline’s only means of cooking is a backyard charcoal stove; when it rains, she has three options: cook in the rain, take her pot over to the elderly neighbor, or, if it’s raining too hard, not cook at all. As Betsy reported, “[Last night it rained] So Aline took the only money she had and bought two pieces of bread for Diane and Olive [her sisters] and they ate bread and avocado. Lola asked her why she didn't eat with them and she said, ‘Aline eat Ubushobozi, no fear.’ So she didn't eat dinner. She ate lunch at Ubushobozi around 2 p.m. and that's it.”

This young woman works to support her two sisters and doesn’t eat when it rains. I can’t go three hours without shoving something in my face. My family didn’t have much when I was growing up, but I do not know what it’s like to truly go hungry. I felt like a world-class jerk.

Betsy agreed that "the guilt is overwhelming sometimes. Every day and night I know I will eat. My biggest problem is deciding what to eat, order, buy, shovel in my mouth for instant gratification. Not survival. Aline and all the girls (and all the girls everywhere in impoverished nations) have to purchase their foods every day, since there's no fridge/storage options, and cook it on the spot. This can take hours, purchasing charcoal, getting the fire going, blah, blah. It's like a part time job."

Kris, who traveled to India, shared a story from her trip that is equally humbling.
"One night, S. and I stayed in a converted haveli in the middle of rural Rajasthan, just outside of a small, poorest-village-I've-ever-seen called Perharsar, where most of the haveli staff was from.

"The next morning, we wandered into town to check things out. The people were super nice, and all the kids followed us shouting "Hello!", even when we left.

"About halfway through the jaunt, we made our way to the roof of one of the homes, where a very, very old man was making small clay pots on a wheel/kiln. His family was there, as well, except one woman who was climbing the stairs with two plates of lentils and chapati. When she saw the two of us, she immediately offered us the plates. We refused and thanked her, having already eaten breakfast.

"Then, she gave the plates to her two small children and one or two other women standing around them. SHE OFFERED US HER KIDS' BREAKFASTS. I've never experienced hospitality like that. The kids, of course, wolfed it. Lentils and all."
How do we—wealthy, well-fed, clothed-and-sheltered we—handle stories like this?

We can feel bad about all that we have, about the excess our country produces and wastes. Or we can be grateful and embrace our abundance as the very thing that allows us to give what we can to girls like Aline and know that we're making a direct difference.

And personally, I could learn to go four hours without eating.

Readers, what is your take? Any stories from your world travels? Advice on dealing with conflicting feelings of guilt/gratitude? I'd love to hear your thoughts. The comments are open for you to let 'er rip!


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Lily Fluffbottom said...

I don't really have anything to offer, but I am still wholly impressed by the hospitality and choices of self sacrifice that are so common by those that live in such places. I think I would always put my own needs first. That makes me really sad right now.

alexis said...

Disclaimer - if this seems to be a rant or tangential to theme of CHG, feel free to strike from the record. I was struck (and bit put off) by the juxtaposition of the article on savings at big box stores and then poverty and hunger in the developing world. I work on labor rights and trade policy issues - so if this seems overly political, again, please refer to above disclaimer and accept my apologies. The feminization of poverty (that women and girls disproportiantely work longer hours for less wages and more often struggle in poverty), the growing prices of basic food stuffs, and the inequality between the post-industrial and developing worlds aren't separate, isolated phenomena, but various facets of the economic system that these big box stores benefit from and lobby to promote. The same food subsidies that CHG notes make corn syrup more affordable than broccoli, well they also make US grown agro-products able to underbid locally grown foods in the Americas and Africa (I'm not an Asia expert, so I won't guess there.) Mexico, the birthplace of corn, has GM corn being pushed on it, NAFTA opened the doors to US corn which because of subsidies was much cheaper, it displaced millions of farmers, which helped fuel rural poverty and migration. Similar policies affect food economies around the world. Ok, I'll put the breaks on because I can feel the rant coming. Anyway, individual charity is commendable, necessary, and in some cases life-saving. However we need to think broadly about our participation in an economic system that causes the very conditions we seek to charitably remedy. Thanks for humoring me,

alexis said...

a last little addendum: I don't mean to knock charity, and I especially don't mean to make the problem even more insurmountable than it may seem. There are ways to give on a small scale, and then work to address systemic issues (which for average citizen usually requires giving no money) - it can include things like engaging legislators on issues like fair trade (as opposed to free trade agreements), on forgiving third world debt, on closing corporate tax loopholes. A phone call counts A LOT, and you don't need to be an expert. Making individual choices about where we shop helps, but it doesnt substitute policy, and its something we all ought to be involved in consciously (since we live, spend, and eat according to it every day, as do girls like Aline.)

Kris said...

@alexis: You raise some excellent issues - ones that, I think, all three of us struggle with when writing for this site. We want to promote ethical eating, which is why we endorse locavorism and farmer's markets, and why our veggie and vegan recipes so outnumber our meat ones. At the same time, we recognize that in the current economy, it's impossible for the vast majority of Americans to buy 100% humanely produced food - including us. I (completely, totally) understand your discomfort with seeing global poverty and American surplus juxtaposed, but we have to acknowledge big box stores and supermarkets, since they dominate the American food shopping experience. To ignore wholesalers would be dismissive of the millions who rely on them to get by - particularly those with large families. (Incidentally, I may be the only childless woman to ever step into the Brooklyn CostCo.)

Still, you're right about the need for sweeping policy changes. Michelle Obama's eating initiatives have been invaluable in that sense, and the pending Farm Bill will be the bellwether for the future of agriculture, both foreign and domestic. As far as getting involved on a personal level, Marion Nestle recently published an excellent post on the matter:

It could also be noted that CostCo has long had an excellent reputation for providing their own workers with solid benefits, good pay, and reasonable hours. Should that be factored into the decision?

Thank you for writing. It was a well-put comment, and one that made me really think about how we do what we do at CHG.

alexis said...

By the way, I shop regulary at Giant - which is union (just like Costco), my produce is usally 95% NOT organic and from the korean market - I'm definitely not trying to build up an ideal that regular people can't meet. I'm from a family of 7 from the bronx and grew up understanding (and still do) that budgets are for real. It definitely is not to knock the use of chain stores, just to highlight that within the realm of inidividual choice, there's major limits to what we can do - which is why engaging policy collectively is important. Thanks for the thoughtful response. And I love CHG - its my fav internet guilty pleasure on worktime!

Philip Jones said...

In the late 60s I was in the Peace Corps in Brazil, working with very poor rural schools. Terrible hunger was not widespread, but it did exist. The people I worked with were always extremely gracious to visitors, and any Brazilian, eating something in the presence of someone else, would offer to share.

We were visited by an American from some US government office in DC who wanted to see one of our rural schools. He drove to meet us there, and as soon as he got out of his Jeep, he pulled out the 1968 equivalent of a granola bar, tore it open and ate it himself, never thinking either to wait and eat in private, or to offer to share, as his hosts would have done.

But you already know not to be boorish like that.

Christine said...

I appreciate the diversity of articles about food I find on this site - including the one today. (I always love the links posted on Friday!) It's important for Americans for reflect upon and be grateful for the abundance we enjoy - because that gratefulness will help us have a better attitude and approach towards food. When you consider how many people in this country are concerned about losing weight and how many people in developing countries are worrying about having enough to eat (or being selfless enough to give you their children's food), it adds some levity to what is often a complicated relationship with food. Thank you for this post.

Kyra S. said...

I was fortunate enough to spend time in high school and college traveling around Tibet, China, and Thailand. The lasting impression it made on me was how lucky I am to simply to be born in the country I am, to partake in the abundance I do. Those "starving children in Asia" our mom always admonished us about as kids? I've seen them, and it makes me waste less and appreciate more. It's an experience I hope to share with my son when he is old enough to appreciate it.

Anonymous said...

What I've done in my travels (and this is a 100% short term, band-aid thing and not a sweeping overhaul of the underlying issues, I know) - is to load up on apples, oranges, bananas, whatever, and carry them around with me. When I came across people begging for money, I would offer them some food and 99% of the time it was gratefully accepted. This tip was from a friend who had been living in India for some time, and she pointed out that this had the double-benefit of supporting local produce vendors AND the quick-hunger-fix of providing some food.

Also, at restaurants, we would order way more than we intended to eat, get the rest in doggy bags,and distribute it just outside the restaurant. My most poignant "oh my god I'm so spoiled" moment came in Mumbai. We asked for containers for our food and were told that they were out. The waiter asked us if we were intending to give the food to the kids who were watching us eat through a fence, and we said yes. He said "no problem, I'll just throw it into the garbage in the back and they can eat it out of there." Oof.