Challenges understood through cooking & food

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By Samuel Merlin

Over the past five months, I have traveled to three continents sampling dishes as unique as crickets, duck fetus, durian, black clams, fermented cassava and frog. Simply put, I wanted to see if these dishes and local cuisines could do more. Looking deeper into what food is eaten, how it is prepared, and who eats it provided a means to learn more about local community life.

While visiting local markets and cooking at people’s homes, food began to reveal deeper realities. Did a family’s financial status dictate what they could and could not eat? Do traditional family dynamics exist with the mother organizing all things home-related? All these questions, whether socio-economic or anthropologic in context, all provide insight on one key area: what challenges face the people of these local communities?

First stop, Ecuador. The food? Fresh pacific seafood paired with locally grown fruits and vegetables. The people? Friendly, open, but challenged by growing prices in the outside market. This costal community faces many developmental challenges on a daily basis, including a poor education system and limited access to clean water.

Instead of focusing on specific issues, I let food lead the way to a more encompassing issue. This community, nestled along the ocean, has access to the ocean’s endless bounty and incredible fertile soil for growing crops year round. However, many food staples that used to be grown locally now have to be purchased at a local market.

This shift away from subsistence farming has occurred between generations, with the younger generation relying more heavily on the outside market for traditionally homegrown ingredients.

Depending on outside markets is not the issue; rather, it is the growing price of goods and commodities which families never before had to purchase. Men in this community work set-price two to three week temporary jobs as they become available. As Ecuador continues to rapidly develop and adopt the U.S. dollar as its currency, prices at outside markets continue to rise while the wages earned by community members remain the same. Families are left with less and less each month as they become increasingly dependent on these outside markets.

Unique challenges exist in Cape Coast, Ecuador, as well. Over-competition among food vendors forces selling at unsustainable prices. This unsustainable pattern mirrors the over-presence of NGOs which hinders rather than helps development progress.

In the battle against AIDS in Durban, South Africa, an increasingly diverse culinary scene reveals a growing cultural melting pot. Tribes, immigrants and refugees flock to Durban through its industrial shipping port, forcing social entrepreneurs to create solutions to problems that supercede race, ethnicity and socio-economic status.

In the small village of Ddegeya, Uganda, simple culinary fare of steamed green bananas and boiled cassava with beans highlights fresh ingredients with minimal seasonings and cooking techniques. The simple and straightforward culinary fare exemplifies the community’s developmental needs, including increased access to water, basic healthcare

and electricity. Simple and straightforward.

Unique patterns and challenges are found in each community from Ecuador to Ghana, South Africa to Uganda, and India to Cambodia. Food is only a means to understand the people, community and their respective uphill challenges. It takes true innovation to create unique sustainable solutions to these problems.

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