On my recent trip to a small village in central Mexico in the state Guanajuato, I witnessed the reality of the local food situation. Prior to traveling, I had expectations that I would be able to walk into a market and find a variety of traditional, yet obscure, natural plant food products. I expected to find pitaya cactus fruits. I expected to encounter mountains of sweet guamúchil pods, cottage industries of chilacayote marmalade, nutritious packages of mesquite flour, and any number of other useful-plant surprises.
What surprised me most was that I didn’t encounter any such products. I did, however, encounter another sort of variety: A variety of carefully concocted potions all blended together seamlessly into hundreds of different products all based around the same general building blocks of nutritional morbidity: salt, sugar, and fat, plus a rainbow of dubious chemical preservatives and artificial flavors.
I found myself surrounded by a myriad of stores with shelves full of such products as Pingüinos, Submarinos, and Sabritas. Such stores are known locally as tiendas de abarrotes (grocery stores) and are basically a smaller version of 7/11. In the village of about 900 people where I was planning an experimental farm project, I counted ten tiendas de abarrotes – approximately one per block. So, no matter which neighborhood you found yourself in, you could rest assured that your Sabrita cravings could be satiated without having to burn too many calories. The Sabrita-slinging tiendas de abarrotes outnumbered the fresh fruit and vegetable stores at a rate of about ten to one.
Thanks to NAFTA (The North American Fat Trade Agreement), big ag businesses have carte blanche to grow, process, and package copious quantities of junk food and traffic them along both sides of the Mexico/USA border, clogging both highways and arteries in the process.
The village where I stayed in Guanajuato is situated in the hills at the edge of the Bajío ecoregion, a high-altitude, fertile plateau that was once a vast Mesquite woodland, and which has now been almost entirely converted into monocultures of corn and sorghum for export.
While riding on buses throughout the Bajío, I passed billboards proclaiming the latest GMO corn patent number alongside the exclamation “Más cosecho!” (“Greater harvest!”) Similar enthusiastic billboards were common, celebrating the abandonment of tradition and the gleeful acceptance of a grand scam.
Still, virtually all the local farmers plant their fields with the traditional “three sisters”: corn, beans, and squash. There are also various small-scale fruit orchards (huertas) that have replaced the native vegetation along the creek. Mango season was in full swing during my trip. The huertas are mostly comprised of mangos, loquats, guavas and limes. The huertas and the three-sisters agriculture are the two saving graces of the local population’s health.
The locals have also adopted the use of herbicide sprays in their own fields, a practice which started popping up less than ten years ago. Daily, I watched as young farmers rode their burros down into the fields while wearing spray-backpacks full of herbicides.
There is virtually no culture of home-scale intensive vegetable gardening of the sort that is now becoming popular in the United States, and the majority of the plants grown in the state go towards feeding livestock. Thus, at every meal there is always at least one animal product. The people eat lots of eggs, chicken, beef, pork, and vegetable oil. There is also a heavy addiction to Coke and other soft drinks. The tiendas de abarrotes are not going bankrupt anytime soon.
The diet has helped Mexico become the world’s number one most obese nation. Diabetes is on the rise, as are other weight-related diseases, and the streetside pharmacies are making a fortune selling prescription drugs over the counter. I counted nine pharmacies in one block in the nearest small city.
The Mexican women are generally more obese than the men, probably due to their more sedentary lifestyle, and the younger people seem to be falling into the trap of the Sabrita diet more than the older people. Indeed, among the younger people, I was the weird one for preferring to snack on raw carrots and tomatoes instead of candy and chips. “Que eres!? Un conejo?” (“What are you?! A rabbit?”), I was asked teasingly a couple times. On a number of different occasions, I heard the phrase, “El agua me hace daño,” (Water harms me), repeated by some heavy cola addicts.
The education level is not the highest in rural Mexico. I met a lot of people who stopped going to school after they graduated from secundaria(junior high). Most parents cannot afford to have their kids travel to the nearest small city to attend preparatoria(high school), so the kids just end up doing whatever work they can find. Basic nutrition should be compulsory education for every student in primaria(elementary school) in order to challenge the belief that colas are a healthy alternative to water and that carrots are only for rodents.
On the sixth day of my trip, I remember feeling especially anxious and culture-shocked. I looked at my surroundings: the broken retaining walls, the streets with crater-sized potholes, the 15-year old mamitas with babies in their arms, the obesity at every turn. I wanted to make a difference, no matter how small.
I entered a few local shops to share my observations and talked with people about my concerns. No one became angry in the slightest. They all knew perfectly well what I was talking about, and they could all empathize with me. With tears in my eyes, I poured my heart out to them, telling them why I was in their village and what I wanted to do. I felt so accepted. I ended up making some great friends that day.
On my last day in the village I went to the tienda de abarrotes where my new friend, Manuel, works, and I started snapping photographs of the colorful product displays in the store. He looked at me and noticed the twinkle in my eye. I began to laugh hysterically at the ridiculousness of what I was photographing. Then Manuel joined in and started laughing as well. He too had grasped the absurdity of it all.
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Scott O’Bar is spearheading an experimental farm project in Guanajuato for the purpose of increasing dietary diversity there and introducing novel, water-wise crops into North America. Learn more at cropsfordrylands.com.