10 July 2010

the UN reports that 1 out of every 3 hondurans suffer from hunger

For me, cooking stemmed as a survival instinct; borne from a place of necessity. My mother passed away when I was 17 years old and my father’s culinary skills were limited to the Weber grill (in the middle of an East Coast winter, mind you). The first time I played the deceased mother, no-questions-asked truancy card, I took the R5 Septa Regional Rail into downtown Philadelphia and discovered row after row of farmers’ stalls filled with fruits, vegetables, meats, artisanal pastas and cheeses at Reading Terminal Market. The colors, smells and cooking possibilities overwhelmed my senses and my appreciation for food, one of the universe’s most basic needs, has only grown to a sacred place of respect and praise over the decades. It’s a privilege I take great pleasure in three times daily and never take for granted.

Hunger, homelessness and poverty were rampant during my recent volunteer project for The Global Citizen Project with Building a Future and Hogares Crea in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. I had seen painful glimpses of these issues on previous trips to Latin America, but never experienced its innumerable effects so intimately. When I traveled throughout Honduras in late 2007, I was floored by the beauty of the country. On this trip though, beauty was limited to a few quick countryside road trips and the gracious hospitality of the Honduran people. If beauty existed in Tegucigalpa, it was trumped by never-ending piles of trash and an omnipresent concern for gang violence, which kept my personal safety radar working overtime. The city (and country) face a plethora of problems ranging from its 40% unemployment rate, $1.30-1.50 average hourly wages and pervasive lack of education (the average Honduran completes 6.5 years of school) to widely divided social classes and a 19.5 year old age median. Factor in Honduras’ recent Presidential coup and its resulting political polarization, and it doesn’t take a Poli Sci major to realize that the country doesn’t exactly have an easy recipe for success.

All of this doom and gloom certainly was disheartening, but one aspect that stuck with me was how the impoverished children I worked with ate. For many of the capitol city’s dwellers, Walmart-like superstores, fast food and Coca Cola culture reigned supreme (the seemingly holy trinity of American exports). It was a drastically different story for the youth I interacted with on a daily basis. Leftover, expired and damaged foodstuffs donated en masse by local grocery store, La Colonia, were delivered approximately every 10 days to Asociacion Puente al Desarrollio, a command central of sorts for several local humanitarian efforts. Cardboard boxes, loose bottles and jars arrived piled high in the back of barely functioning pick-up trucks – exposed to Honduras’ hot, tropical sun for who knows how long – dripping, smelly and disgusting. Although each delivery technically contained thousands of pounds of food, it was product that most Americans would deem inedible, myself included, although my cultural anthropology schooled significant other tried to convince me that human stomachs can, over time, adapt to digesting spoiled food. Thank goodness I was only a short-term guinea pig. Within minutes of unloading cases Cinnamon Chex, Dannon yogurt, Hy-Top Barbecue sauce, 100 pound bags of red beans and rice, and cases of water marked “Haiti Relief,” goods were carefully distributed to a growing group of street side spectators, who clutched items with we-just-won-the-lottery fervor. When I returned to Asociacion Puente al Desarrollio, more than half of the foodstuffs had already found homes.

During my three week stint in Honduras, I found myself consuming the food truck stuffs on several occasions. I survived several week expired, sun-exposed yogurt and Spaghetti-O slathered boiled chicken parts. I sliced off fuzz-free parts tomatoes and scooped out the bright orange flesh of rotting papayas. I refrained from whipping out my SteriPen when tooth-achingly sweet juice mixes were served with surely contaminated water, if only to not offend the gracious hospitality of my hosts. I pumped my body full of probiotics and prayed that my malaria meds (Doxycycline) would keep my gastrointestinal system safe. I quickly learned how to say “Yo no tengo mucho hambre,” but never wanted to come across as ungrateful for a second to these people who generously shared when they had so very little themselves. I even rationalized that I’d already lived through E.coli twice plus two parasitic diseases from contaminated water sources in California (go figure) and the humiliation of submitting weekly fecal samples to the Monterey County Health Department, so surely, the worldwide water gods would want to play nice with me. I worried endlessly about whether these boys and girls were getting enough nutrition.

Despite constant exposure to these hard realities, I had a difficult time fully understanding a world that lives a moment-to-moment, hand-to-mouth existence. My head spun with pie in the sky dreams of a future filled with opportunity for these children, where hopefully, someday, the Vatican would realize that education and (gasp!) contraception is far more valuable than creating hungry mouths. A “can do” kinda gal who’s rooted in a reality where God doesn’t write child support checks can dream, right?

As a food and travel writer and avid home chef, food plays an important role in my world, whether it’s shopping my local farmers’ markets in Seattle or volunteering at Marra Farm Giving Garden or Food Lifeline. Having easy access to a variety of fresh, healthy food is something I’ve always taken great pleasure in, but after being on the receiving end of how people living in poverty eat, I promise to eat every last bite on my plate and thank my lucky stars for the privilege.

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