A generation ago, the international health community had two well-defined goals: to halt the spread of infectious diseases and to feed the world’s growing population. Since then, obesity and the chronic diseases diabetes and hypertension have emerged as major global health problems, and today as many as 30% of households suffer under the double burden of malnutrition and overweight. Being diagnosed with one is no defense against the other, as most of the world’s additional calories have arrived in the form of cheap, highly refined carbohydrates and oils. In Mexico, a staggering 70% of adults are either overweight or obese, the highest rate on the planet.
Africa and the rest of the developing world are not far behind. This is not a question of over-indulgence, but of availability. If we are to develop a sensible food system that makes healthy diets accessible, we must do so in Mexico first, and if we are to prevent a public health disaster, we need to do it quickly. It’s time to look beyond narrow views of overnutrition and undernutrition and recognize the universal need for sustainable, balanced diets. We need to find solutions that empower local farmers and entrepreneurs to expand the production and delivery of fresh fruits and vegetables. We need to redefine our health incentives.
The origins of Mexico’s nutritional crisis are tied to the nation’s agricultural history. Mexico was the birthplace of the green revolution, the reigning agricultural paradigm of the twentieth century. In order to improve food security, high yield crop varieties, synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and industrial farming methods were all imported from the north.
For East-Central Mexico, in the Totonac and the Veracruz regions, the crop recommended by the national government was coffee. With farm subsidies and the promise to purchase entire yields, even the coffee grown at low altitudes for which there is little international demand, most farmers switched exclusively to coffee cultivation.
By the mid-nineties, coffee prices had crashed and the subsidies were drying up. In the meantime, generations of region-specific farming knowledge had been lost, and small-scale Totonac farms no longer had the ability to feed themselves. The health consequences have been disastrous. Indigenous Totonacos now suffer from the highest rates of malnutrition in the country. All across Mexico, fruit and vegetable consumption has declined and been replaced with low nutrient, energy-dense processed foods. Obesity rates have more than doubled in the last twenty years, and diabetes has become Mexico’s leading cause of death.
The Totonac people have borne the brunt of the damages inflicted by these changes. Still, even as conditions in the region become increasingly dire, agriculture and a reverent connection to the land remain unifying principles of indigenous culture. Families send their young and able-bodied members to Mexico’s cities in hopes of making enough money – not to escape their struggling farm communities – but to diversify crops, buy more land, or open dry goods stores back home.
What if there was a way to restore the dignity of Totonac farmers while improving nutritional outcomes for Mexico as a whole?
VIDA is a multi-stage campaign to alleviate diet related diseases among the Totonac people and to foster the growth of a new organic produce industry. The program begins with compact, high-yield home gardens and advisory meetings with our nutritional counselors. As participating families begin to grow fruits and vegetables beyond the needs of their immediate communities, our agricultural center in Central Mexico will assist them in networking and improving market linkage with nearby cities, where demand for healthy food is soaring. We believe that the Totonacos, a people who have suffered under the burden of poor diet and who view farming as a venerable, if dying way of life, are in a position to lead Mexico towards better health.
We view the farming traditions of the Totonac region and its tight-knit communities as strengths. Our plan is to restore the ability of local farmers to feed themselves, while introducing modern, sustainable farming practices to increase yields. VIDA home gardens make fresh fruits and vegetables available to the most at-risk groups, including children, pregnant women, and the elderly. By growing the program from the kitchen outwards, we are ensuring that the Totonacos continue to benefit from their produce, and the improvements they experience in their own health make for a compelling sales pitch.
The markets for fresh produce have changed dramatically since the days of the coffee subsidies. A strong middle class in Mexico’s cities has raised demand, and Oportunidades, a massive poverty alleviation program that provides cash transfers conditional on purchasing preventative healthcare and improving nutrition, is enabling even the rural poor to eat healthy. Mexico’s national government recognizes the extent of the nutritional crisis and is acting to halt it, but such programs are unwieldy. Private enterprise remains our most efficient agent of change. More needs to be done to stimulate the supply side of fresh produce. VIDA is a relief campaign with a long-term business plan.
How far can $25,000 really go?
We view our humanitarian projects as investments. When our donors agree to fund us, they expect returns in the form of sustained positive social, health and educational outcomes, and they expect us to achieve these outcomes as cheaply and efficiently as possible. From three years of research in the communities surrounding our agricultural center in Jonotla, we have concluded that 500 gardening families will be sufficient to meet the fresh produce supply gap in the Totonac region. The additional cost of nutritional and agricultural training for 500 families (~2,500 people) is $25,000.
$25,000 may seem small in the face of the nutritional crisis afflicting Mexico as a whole, but we believe that this figure, properly leveraged with our existing and ongoing humanitarian investments in Puebla State, will go beyond providing immediate relief to the 500 recipient Totonac families. By reaching a critical mass of farmers and making an impact on the supply of fresh fruits and vegetables in Totonaca, we will be laying the foundation for organic farming cooperatives to scale upwards and reach larger markets in Mexico’s cities.
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