Winthrop U student ponders American selfishness in Guatemala

Photo to go with Ali's gust post on my blog.

This guest post is brought to you by Ali Jensen, a junior at Winthrop University studying biology and one of seven students who traveled with Kelly Campbell of the Village Experience and me to Guatemala. It was awesome to see Ali connect her passion for biology and medicine with the experiences we had on our trip.

Often times in the states, kids don’t always like the food their parents prepare for them. So usually the parents just make something else, or don’t make that particular food for their child anymore. Kids in Guatemala don’t have that option. They eat whatever their parents can afford.

When you ask a child in the USA what their favorite is they say, “macaroni and cheese” or “pizza”. When you ask a kid in Guatemala what their favorite food is, they look confused. When I asked a little boy in Panajachel named Walter, what his favorite food was he looked at me like I was crazy and said, “Everything.” It’s that simple for them, they like whatever they can get. In placed like Guatemala people don’t have a choice, they eat the same things every day — rice, beans, and tortillas. There is no, “We ate that on Monday so we can’t have that on Friday.”

Americans have become so accustomed to choices in variety that they never stop to think, “We should eat that leftover chicken before it goes bad.” There is always the notion that we can throw it away if we don’t want it, that food is something easily disposed of. In places like Guatemala food is respected, it is a precious resource that shouldn’t be wasted and can’t be taken for granted. People don’t come home from work and ask, “What’s for dinner, honey?” They ask, “Is there enough to eat for dinner tonight?”

Ever since I could remember my father has always scolded me for not eating everything on my plate and tried to guilt me into it by saying, “There are starving kids in China who would love to have what is on your plate.” I thought nothing of it, until I came to Guatemala. These children aren’t Chinese, but they would love the countless amounts of food my family has thrown away over the years. (note from Kelsey: Americans throw away 40% of their food or about $2,275 of food each year for family of four.)

During this trip my group visited a small village in the jungle of Guatemala, part of our experience was trekking up the steep mountain hills with large bags of food to feed the elderly in the town who could not provide for themselves. The little old lady I gave my bag of food to was starving. She showed me the food she and her husband had before we showed up; it was one small bowl of rice.

I get hungry a few hours after breakfast, I can’t imagine having only one bowl of rice in my house. The bag of food I left them would sustain an American family for a week, it was supposed to last the old lady and her husband for about a month.

It is becoming a fad now in the United States to monitor how much children are eating now to prevent diabetes, obesity, and other diseases. In a little ice cream shop in Chichicastenago a little girl was begging for ice cream. She was all skin and bones, her dirty little hands were pressed up against the glass. Her pink tongue was licking the sides of her mouth in hunger; you could feel her desire for something to eat. It’s funny how parents are trying to prevent their children from eating ice cream and other unhealthy foods in the developing world while I’m sure this girls parents would be grateful to be able to give her a substantial meal or a treat like ice cream. Her parents didn’t have the luxury of worrying about what she was eating, just if she could eat. I can’t imagine what it would be like to not be able to feed your children.

In America, we are so concerned with excess nutrition. Are we getting too much sugar? Are we getting too much salt? Is our food genetically altered? Guatemalans don’t get to indulge in the wonder of excess, just the bare minimum. Their diets consist mostly of beans, rice, and tortillas; not too much nutritional variance in that. They start drinking coffee at infancy because it is a cheap staple that can suppress their hunger. This diet can seriously affect the health of Guatemalans because they are missing out on so many essential vitamins and nutrients, including folate, iron, vitamin A, vitamin B12, and zinc.

Almost all pregnant women in the developed world take folic acid to promote good fetus growth. Specifically, folate stimulates brain and spinal cord development; a deficiency in folate can result in an under developed brain and a lower brain efficacy. Many children in Guatemala have learning disabilities and I believe that is due to their lack of folate during crucial development. The government has started to fortify wheat flour and sugar with iron and vitamin A, respectively. However, a deficiency in either nutrient can result in growth stunting. Almost everyone in the USA know what vitamin B12 is because it is present in all of our energy drinks, however it also aids in the conversion from inactive folate to active folate. So a deficiency in vitamin B12 can also result in lower energy and a lack of brain development. A deficiency of zinc results in eye and skin lesions, which could be seen on many older Guatemalans in the jungle village. So often Americans are concerned with excess, what can we do with our excess? We take so much and give so little in return, is it fair?

The majority of this blog post has been about reprimanding Americans for their wasteful ways, but can we change? Personally, I don’t think I can change drastically.

Is it fair that the average Guatemalans make $4,650 per year while some people get paid $200,000 per year? I don’t think so. The saddest part about that question for me is that I wouldn’t want it any other way.

I’m fine with Guatemalans making more money, as long as it doesn’t take anything from me. My family has taken so much from them with our extreme consumerism, but I’m unwilling to give back if it affects my quality of life. I don’t say that out of ignorance; I say that out of pure, unadulterated, American selfishness.

Note from Kelsey: I appreciate Ali’s honesty here and want to leave you all with this question…

Would you change your life to improve the lives of others? If so how?


Becki says:

There are so many easy ways we can change individually to improve the lives of others. I’ve made a decision to only buy fair trade, organic coffee to drink at home. At a local donut shop, the espresso they use in their drinks is fair trade, but the coffee isn’t, so I only buy espresso-based drinks. Chocolate to eat at home is the same way.

But it’s harder to make those decisions for others. My husband doesn’t much like espresso, and just shakes his head at me when I insist on doing something that makes no sense to him (like buying cage-free eggs, he teases me about buying eggs from happy chickens; my response is, what’s wrong with that?). Spending more to help others is difficult when we are struggling with bills ourselves. So, I understand completely where Ali is coming from. All we can do is try, and go from there.

Kelsey says:

Becki, Eggs from happy chickens taste better. I think it’s awesome that you do make decisions based more on just price. The fact is that we can make a difference, but when the problem is so big it can be daunting. I often feel like Ali. But I’m seeing more ways each of us can have a positive impact. Being an engaged consumer isn’t always easy, but it is fun finding new foods and clothes with amazing stories.

Let your voice be heard!