Cereal, eggs, pancakes, bacon and sausages have practically become standard breakfast fare. When did that happen in the Caribbean? Someone in Tobago wrote to me after last week’s column, where I was trying to persuade people to look carefully at food labels and to think about food choices.
She had just popped over to Trinidad and said that the breakfast cereal aisle in one of the major supermarkets made her sick, and that in the scarcity of foreign exchange “looking at the obscene variety on display is enough to raise my blood sugar.”
I’d been comparing the contents of the foreign and local brands and I have found that across the board, meaning in a range of products, the majority of the imported goods are higher in calories and sugars and all sorts of additives. In the case of cereals, they are also far more expensive.
She suggested that when the Minister of Finance presents the national budget in a couple of weeks, he should introduce a tax on the imported foods, perhaps based on sugar content. She outlined some of her own measures to watch what she eats, especially buying local produce.
The Minister of Health has become voluble about the need to watch our diets and get more physical exercise. Last Saturday, his ministry launched a nationwide wellness challenge “TT Moves,” targeted at lowering the prevalence of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) that are killing off this population faster than gunmen.
It is a laudable effort, but there are many elements that have contributed to the alarming statistics for NCDs that are now seeping down to our children. If any change can be effected at all, it has to come from early childhood, where the poor habits have taken root.
In February this year, the Guardian reported that a Joint Select Committee on social services and public administration was informed that at least half of the primary and secondary school population are overweight and are at risk. One of the Health Ministry’s initiatives was cited as “the restriction of sugary drinks being sold in schools.”
Even if the drinks are restricted, I doubt that they have been banned, and even if they have been banned I am sure no one is monitoring that situation. As my respondent in Tobago said angrily, the big companies have too much control, and too much to lose for anything significant to be done by the politicians.
We cannot deny there is a health crisis here. Even if we put aside other perpetual crises in the health sector—mysterious black holes sucking in medical supplies and equipment; shortages of medical staff—the figures for NCDs are startling, and they are not confined to Trinidad and Tobago. We have to start somewhere.
The two obvious places of high influence on childhood behaviours are the home and the school. It is significant that we have never had a culture of school lunch halls. There was never a space allocated for eating in our schools. The introduction of the school feeding programme is itself a fairly recent addition, and that programme has had several challenges. Many of them have stemmed from the nature and quality of the food.
In early August, there was a conference on West Indies Agriculture Economics and the president of the Agro-Economic Society, Prof Carlisle Pemberton, suggested that the agricultural sector would benefit from a direct link to school feeding.
Granted, he is coming from a perspective based on the agricultural sector—his research team plans to publish their work as, “State of Caribbean School Feeding Programmes: A driver for education and domestic production.” The research, according to the newspaper report, looked at these criteria in school lunches: nutritional intake, quality control measures, meal costs, economic benefits and demand and supply. Pemberton said that the proportion of imported foods was too high and that local produce was being neglected as part of the fare.
His team had tried changing the proportions to include more local produce and it had a big impact on the cost. If the State is serious about taking care of its citizens, then it ought to work on putting measures in place to monitor the school feeding programmes. This is a country where it is not enough to put legislation in place, there has to be monitoring, and there has to be enforcement.
In the meantime, there are things we can do in our homes. I want to come back to the impact of marketing. We have been brainwashed into thinking there is a particular type of food that is suitable for specific mealtimes.
I confess that while I love to cook, I always think in an abstract way of protein, vegetables, carbohydrates when I am putting together a meal. It means I come up with odd combinations sometimes, because I don’t assemble food in traditional ways.
Breakfast has never been standard fare. Don’t let the ads fool you, cereal is not the healthy choice if it is packed with sugar! Breakfast in the Caribbean can mean fish and green figs (bananas), or saltfish and ackee. If you substitute provisions for the sada roti that comes with the multitude of vegetable chokas, you can’t go wrong. It is hearty, nutritious and delicious.
Introduce them to your children, it will do them good.