Equal Opportunity

Sunday 8.8.10

I had a dream last night about equal opportunity…vegetables. Yes, my unconscious had the interesting idea to offer reduced-priced healthy foods to underprivileged families and individuals. I was at the Nob Hill grocery store in Martinez, driving around with my brother when somehow the news of this new program reached us. We, logically, decided to follow a long line of parked cars because of course this program would be so popular in my home town that everybody would immediately get into their cars and go to investigate it. We waited in line for many minutes (who knows really how long in dream-time we waited) until we realized it was a line for a drive-through bank. Whoops. We then decided, a little more logically, to go into the grocery store and ask somebody about the program. It turns out it was in the store so we meandered over to the fruit and vegetable isle to investigate. As in all dreams, the reality was a little strange – there were four buckets with different assortments of pre-mixed vegetables, I’m assuming pre-mixed for the purpose of achieving the ideal vitamin and mineral combinations, from which to choose. None of them looked very tasty, but I chose the second bucket which looked more green than the rest. The woman managing the station told me I should prepare my digestion system for that. I don’t know how it would really be possible to prepare one’s digestion system for anything, but I assume she meant there’s just a lot of fiber in the veggies and to be prepared.

Soon after, my mom appeared and I felt a grand desire to eat hummus. I searched all over but could not locate the hummus and felt sad. I spent what felt like a good 15 minutes searching all over the various refrigerated sections of the Nob Hill to find hummus but it could not be found. It reminded me of the time I was at the Albertsons in Morro Bay, Central California, and asked a bagger boy where they kept the hummus and he brought me a package of some cheese spread. He didn’t even know what hummus is. That basically ended the dream, and I woke up hungry and wanting hummus.

Although the dream didn’t really have anything to do with offering lower-priced vegetables to lower-income families, the idea is very interesting. Here in Guatemala the staple foods are, of course, tortillas and beans. Coffee too, or really, hot sugar water with a tiny bit of instant coffee grounds added. Families that have enough money can afford to buy more vegetables and fruits and meats sometimes, but I’ve found that even with the families that can afford to buy a healthier variety and mixture of foods just don’t. It’s not their culture, and they don’t really realize the nutritional benefits of varying their diet. In my family, out of the 21 meals they eat every week:

5 are bread and coffee (almost always breakfast)
8 are eggs and beans, sometimes rice (sometimes the eggs have some onion, but more often plain)
2 are some type of spaghetti
3 are some type of caldo (watery soup with potato, carrot, meat, and very little flavor)
1 is some type of grilled meat
1 is cauliflower, potato, or green beans enveloped in egg and cooked
1 is something else, like fried plantains, box boles (the typical food in the Ixil region here) or fried chicken they brought back from Nebaj
Every meal is served with tortillas, except for the bread and coffee, and in my family the adults eat an average of 3-4 tortillas per lunch/dinner meal. Now, I don’t eat every meal with my family – just lunch. I make my own breakfast and dinner but I do understand one of the reasons they don’t always cook with vegetables; by Thursday, without a refrigerator, they are often no good to eat anymore. Nevertheless, it is still possible to cook very healthily up through Wednesday and then have your beans-and-eggs days at the end of the week.

I’ve been asked more times than I remember by a bunch of different people my plans for after I leave the Peace Corps. Where are you going to live? Are you going to go for a Masters or Ph.D? What kind of job are you going to look for? My answer has always been, and probably will continue to be up until the day I leave, “I have no idea”. But if I were to pursue a higher degree, nutrition would definitely be on my list of possible fields. I think it’s fascinating how micro- and macronutrients function together in the body, affect each other, and basically drive this intricate machine we call the human being. More than that, how the same foods affect each individual differently. One of the things I’d like to do during my time here teach some basic nutrition to the mothers in my town, and especially show them that you can add a great amount of nutritional value to your meals in an inexpensive manner.

One thing they could do is substitute agua pura at lunch for their fresca, which is basically tang or some other “fruit” flavored juice which they add a bunch of sugar to. They would save a bunch of money on the sugar and they could put that into buying a head of broccoli or some carrots they could eat with their rice. Another thing I could do is teach them different ways of cleaning and preparing vegetables to be eaten raw. The typical way to cook vegetables is to boil them until dead and lifeless, until they barely have any nutritional value remaining. But if they could learn how to add raw or half-cooked veggies into their diets they could be spending the same amount of money on the same foods, but getting more health benefits just by the manner of cooking them. But I think the most important thing I can do is somehow get the schools to buy fruit for snacks instead of cookies and crackers. The reason they buy cookies now is that they come from stores, and stores give receipts which they need to show the ministry of education when they come to audit the books. Fruits can only be bought in the open-air market from venders who surely don’t give receipts. I’d like to figure out a way to get around this for two main reasons. One, it’s just healthier to eat fruit than cookies and if kids get into the habit of eating healthy now, they’ll be more likely to pass it along in their adult years. Two, fruit creates only organic waste; cookies always come packaged in plastic which inevitably gets tossed into the street creating this monstrous build-up of plastic and trash just sitting in the streets and in the rivers.

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