Sin Carne

In Mahar Mangahas’ column at the Philippine Daily Inquirer, he claims that the National Statistical Coordination Board (NSCB) has reduced its standards for food.  One of his more poignant examples:

Dinner was changed from: pork adobo/pechay guisado/boiled rice/banana latundan to fried tulingan/boiled kangkong/boiled rice.  Thus pork is replaced by tulingan; the poor may not enjoy the national dish of adobo any more, presumably due to the extra cost of vinegar, garlic, etc. In fact, the new menu excludes all meat, including chicken or beef, from what the poor may eat.  Pechay is replaced by kangkong.  The banana at dinner is gone, implying that the single banana at lunchtime is already enough fruit for the poor for one day.

I’ll be the last to say that a poor Filipino should indulge in foie gras or have lechon every day, but for purposes of being literal, these are items that the poor probably don’t eat.  Then again, setting a threshold at this level is, in my view, a tad too dehumanizing.  If not for the fact that the poorest of the poor already consider adobo a luxury considering a diet of watered-down instant noodle sabaw (and no, I’m not exaggerating), it should give us insight into what the poor eat, and what the poor should eat.

The obvious answer would be for the poor to eat more vegetables.  I agree: in terms of nutrients and caloric needs, nothing can beat green leafy vegetables in fulfilling basic nutritional needs.  But it wouldn’t matter if all the poor can access are low-quality ones, while the best of carrots and rutabagas and broccoli are found in the chillers of high-end supermarkets and organic fresh produce providers.  I think that there are cultural barriers to vegetarianism: while we would think that the poor should eat more vegetables by virtue of their income (if not for the fact that they already do), there’s nothing in that clause that says that meat should not be eaten by the poor.  That would, in more ways than one, throw us back to a time where only the aristocrats and the rich should be eating meat.  It’s bad enough for poor families to ration a pack of cocktail hotdogs or portion undernourished halves of chickens to feed families of twelve, but to deny them meat on the basis of income borders on humiliation.

The question is not “what the poor should eat,” but how we, as a society, can ensure that those who are lower than us in the economic ladder can have better access to food, and good food at that.  Managing food waste is a start, as well as funding agriculture and investing in more productive yields and techniques (which many of our indigenous peoples have perfected).

Yet beyond that is the psychological need that is fulfilled by food.  I’m not a statistician, but I think that food cannot and should not be essentialized into nutritional sources or its physiological functions.  All too often, we eat to fulfill psychological ends.  More than satisfying the biological needs of cells and tissues and organs, food satisfies our well-being and perception of our selves.  To not be able to eat can mess around with the mind: it doesn’t take a serious hunger experience or a reading of Knut Hamsun to understand that.  That, to me, is a non-food item as well.

Yet I think the more telling situation is how our statistics could possibly shape the way we perceive the poor.  The thing is, the poor and the rich have more things that keep them together than tell them apart, and it should go beyond what is found in their dinner plates.  All the more, I think, that we impoverish the poor by saying “they should eat only this” because they should only eat, wear, and consume what they can statistically afford.  It’s dehumanizing enough to think that the nutritional needs of the impoverished are not met because of all the processed, cheap food that they’re eating, but to deny them of the psychological needs and relief that food provides is, to use Mangahas’ adjective, cruel.

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