(By Yvette DeFreitas)
In recent times, Guyana and the rest of the world have been inundated with a number of new and controversial dietary findings.
For example, the culprit associated with heart disease is no longer saturated fat but highly refined carbohydrates, Coconut oil is no longer on the list of dangerous foods, instead, margarine and other semisolid (trans-fats) created from oils are topping the list.
These and other new debatable nutrition-related hypotheses deserve some scrutiny but the question we will examine here is an age old one that is relevant to over a third of Guyana’s population. “Can a poor person eat healthy?”
Guyana’s poverty assessments (the Household Income and Expenditure Survey published in 1993 and Guyana Living Conditions Survey published in 1999), each show that well over one-third of households in Guyana are living in moderate poverty (on less than US$2 daily).
Approximately two thirds of these households, or 29% of the total population, can be further described as extremely poor, with an expenditure level that challenges their ability to purchase the basic foods required for a healthy diet.
There are an unknown percentage of families experiencing “dietary poverty” because they have stuck with expensive conventional dietary habits or adopted new lifestyles that harm the family’s food budget.
Before we proceed, let us establish what is meant by the term “healthy eating”. Healthy eating refers to the consumption of a variety of foods from different food groups, so that our bodies may receive all the nutrients needed for good health.
To facilitate healthy eating in the Caribbean, the Caribbean Food and Nutrition Institute (CFNI) grouped foods into six food groups and developed four Meal Plans (Twomix, Three-mix and Four-mix ) to show people how to eat healthy at various cost levels.
By following the Two and Three-mix Meal Plans, a family on a low budget can consume foods that provide them with a satisfactory amount of all the nutrients that are needed for good health.
Like the Four-Mix the Two Mix (Meat/Peas + Starchy Food) and Three Mix (Meat/Peas + Starch + Vegetable) meals should be accompanied by a fruits in the form of a beverage or snack to boost the vitamin and mineral content.
In cases where a Two-mix is used regularly, vegetables should be added to meals whenever they are available so that the family will in reality be consuming a diet that consists of Two and Three mix meals.
In addition to their rich vitamin and mineral content, vegetables contain antioxidants and phytochemicals known to stave off and control cancer and other chronic diseases.
Having familiarised oneself with the makeup of a healthy meal, families need to understand portion sizes. It has become fashionable to serve large chunks of meat, the most expensive item in the food basket. The tendency towards overweight and obesity even among the “poor” is an indication that starch, sugar and fat are also overused. Cutting back on these items is one way to cut the food bill.
Now, for some strategies that can be employed to s-t-r-et-c-c-h those food dollars.
Start with a plan. Budgeting helps us see where our money is really going. When we do a budget we can identify any unnecessary spending threats into our food budget. You may say, “I don’t make enough money to budget” but the truth is that you do not have to make a lot of money to benefit from budgeting.
In fact, budgeting helps us to prioritise and stretch whatever little income we have so that we get more of what we truly value. It may even help us to see the relationship between high medical bills and low food bills. Other consequences of poor eating are loss of income due to ill health and poor educational performance in children.
Having allocated a sum of money to the food budget, a detailed menu plan consisting of meals and snacks should be made for the day, week or month depending when you are paid. Then a shopping list of relevant ingredients should be developed. To avoid waste due to spoilage, only buy enough fresh produce for the meals on your meal plan.
To avoid impulsive buying while on shopping trips, eat before going out and leave the children at home. Less will be spent on snacks you cannot afford.
The first rule that should be observed when shopping on a tight budget is “buy foods that are in season”. Buying vegetables and fruits when they are scarce can cost double what it would cost when they are in season.
Another helpful strategy when shopping on a low budget is to compare prices. Compare the price of foods with similar nutritional value e.g. carrots and pumpkin, peas and meat. Compare the prices of different brands. Compare the price of packaged and tinned items against fresh produce.
Many people think that eating expensive meats and processed foods is tantamount to eating healthy, but that isn’t the case at all. Like meat, peas and eggs are rich in protein. And while tinned and processed items may have added nutrients, the cheapest, most nutrient-dense foods are often fresh produce.
Families on a low budget are therefore advised to fill their baskets with fresh greens and fruits, dried peas and beans and basic staples like rice and flour from stalls or groceries that sell quality items at a good price. If a tinned or packaged item is cheaper, opt for a few tins or packages.
Loading your basket with convenience items such as coconut milk, tinned meats and juices, and packaged snacks is a big temptation, even for the family on a low budget. But succumbing will often cause the budget and your healthy diet to fail. The price of these items is usually elevated to cover labour costs, and they are often nutritionally lacking or high in sodium, oil and other substances that aggravate or promote conditions such as hypertension, diabetes and obesity.
If a family is committed to eating healthy on a budget, learning how to cook, and investing in a basic time and labour saving device such as a pressure cooker, if possible, would be another useful step towards eating healthy. The dishes don’t need to be complicated. Pea soup with chunks of ground provision and greens of your choice is a healthy Three-mix that takes 15-30 minutes to prepare in a pressure cooker. Ground provision is a good source of dietary fibre; peas (and meat if used) provide protein and iron; and greens add vitamins A and B, and other important nutrients and phytonutrients to the meal.
To save time and fuel, cook in large batches and freeze leftovers for later in the week.
In recent years and in the 1970s “the kitchen garden” was promoted as a means of supplementing the food basket of Guyanese families. All that is required is a small piece of land or a few empty drums that can be filled with soil. Since the majority of persons existing below the poverty line live in rural and interior regions, the kitchen garden should be a strategy that can be readily employed to help shaved a great deal of money off the food bill. Excess items can be preserved or sold.
Following the flood of 2005, the late Dr. Hector Muñoz (then IICA Emeritus Professional) introduced Guyana to hydroponics technology. This is a method of farming (in water) that would be quite useful to landless families in urban areas.
Now for persons who do not fall below the poverty line but who have, nonetheless, convinced themselves that they are poor and therefore cannot eat healthy. They should make a list of the family’s expenditure and examine it. They may find that if less is spent on fastfood, cable, hair dos, sneakers, weed, clubbing and shows, alcohol, video games, trendy name brand clothes, cigarettes and all kinds of overpriced items that are considered necessary, much more would be available for a healthy diet plan. This does not mean that families are not entitled to some leisure or treats. It just means that spending on treats and leisure activities must be done in moderation and not at the expense of a healthy diet.
The main thing to remember when on a low budget is that eating healthy may be a challenge, but it is doable. It is only impossible if we remain undedicated to figuring out how it can be done. So make a plan, shop wisely, take the challenge of planting a vegetable garden and brush up on your cooking skills.
Yvette DeFreitas is a Retired Public Health Nutritionist, Ministry of Health, Guyana with a Masters in Education for Primary Health Care from the University of Manchester.