decolonization

Food Desert

Above: A sampling of recent Facebook advertisements by local farmers.

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Above: Achiote, a popular spice, at the Åmot Taotao Tåno’ farm in Dededo, 2015.  

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Above: coconut banana fritters at the Guam Micronesia Island Fair, 2015.

A recent essay on Food52.com, a popular culinary website, written by a U.S. military spouse living on Guam, had the following title:

“Cooking on Guam: When a Tropical Paradise is a Food Desert”

Obviously that is an inaccurate description of Guam.  According to the American Nutrition Association:

Food deserts are defined as parts of the country vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods, usually found in impoverished areas. This is largely due to a lack of grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and healthy food providers. . . . 

The USDA defines what’s considered a food desert and which areas will be helped by this initiative:  To qualify as a “low-access community,” at least 500 people and/or at least 33 percent of the census tract’s population must reside more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store (for rural census tracts, the distance is more than 10 miles).

For reference, Guam as a whole (including the more rural middle and southern areas) is only thirty miles long. 

The author, Kimberly Hunter Soltano, goes on to call Guam a food desert specifically in her text:

In this era of “locavore” everything, I’ve quickly learned what it’s like to live on a food desert island, a place where well over 90% of the food we can buy has been shipped at great cost halfway around the world—and where there are plenty of fairly common ingredients we simply can’t find.

That’s an . . . interesting, and . . . also brand new definition of “food desert.”

I’ve been living on Guam only about 3.5 years myself.  There are supermarkets and/or full grocery stores in most towns.  Certainly I would be shocked if even in our rural areas there was not a grocery store within ten miles, although I have not done the measurements.

There are also a variety of farmers’ markets (lots of towns and villages have one at least once a week), fresh fish markets, and specialty-food stores (most of which, the author says in responses to comments, she in fact already knew about).  Again, bear in mind that we are talking about an island that is only eight to twelve miles wide, and only thirty miles long.

The author refers to “this era of ‘locavore’ everything.”  I will say, moving here from the suburban/rural border area around Chicago, I find it much easier to buy local produce on Guam.  You just budget time for a farmers’ market trip once a week or join a CSA (Community-Sponsored Agriculture) group.

The real issue here, I think, is that the author doesn’t seem to have made any connections or relationships to the local farming and fishing communities.  I think many military families might find it a great relationship, but it does need to be something you might invest some time and effort into.  We have amazing local farmers who don’t use toxic chemicals on their produce.  However, they may not be stocked in the local grocery store.

I personally have really appreciated that PayLess, a big grocery chain on island, always has a variety of local produce in its stores these days.

The author also makes some comments on the unavailability of veal or fresh local strawberries.  Ma’am.  You are living in a “tropical paradise” in the western Pacific, not Italy or Sweden.  We don’t have the climate or the tradition for certain foreign food items.

If you want veal, cultivate a relationship with a låncheru in one of the northern islands.  Or ask a grocer for a specialty order.  But yeah, veal is not a local or culturally appropriate item to expect to find on a western Pacific tropical island.  It won’t just casually be on the shelf every day at the store.

As a quick comment, we do get exotic meats like bison on Guam regularly at the local grocery stores.  I’m sure a grocer could place a special order for someone who asked politely . . .

Maybe you can’t get fresh local strawberries (although we are getting shipments from Korea all the time that are at least as good as whatever you find at an average grocery store Stateside).  However, we do have soursoup, papaya, citrus fruits, melons, bananas (beautiful sweet little bananas, totally different from what you find in most Stateside grocery stores), guava, starfruit, star apples, santol, sineguelas, mountain apples, gooseberries, mulberries, mansanita, mango, avocado, atis, breadfruit, jackfruit . . .  Because we’re so close to Asia culturally and geographically, you can also find exotic beautiful fruits like dragonfruit in local Asian grocery stores.

The island has such a beautiful year-round warm climate.  You can grow an absolute abundance of produce here.

The author complained about eggs as well.  We have a large wild chicken population on Guam.  Invest in domesticating some chickens, or, again, make a relationship with a local farmer who raises chickens.  Just as a comment, I’ve never had a problem on Guam with eggs being shelved or stocked past their expiration date.

The author writes:

When I travel, I find myself leaving most of my suitcase empty for the groceries I’m planning to bring back. Sometimes that translates into “nice to haves,” like Trader Joe’s aioli mustard (I’m addicted) and gummy tummies for the kids. Sometimes it’s cheese, country ham, aged balsamic vinegar, double zero flour, and stone-ground grits.

I hate to say it, but this absolutely reeks of classism and snobbery.  Ma’am, just because there isn’t a Trader Joe’s on your base doesn’t mean Guam is a food desert.

Also, it doesn’t sound like the author is really much of a locavore.  If, let us say, you move to a tropical island, you need to realize the local diet won’t encompass veal and aged balsamic vinegar.  You may need to adapt your flavor palate to the environment and location.  Hopefully you can decide to enjoy and appreciate the distinctive Asian-Pacific delicacies local to Guam.

I don’t want to paint everything on Guam with an idealistic brush, but when the author says —

the island got its first CSA (through a co-op of local farmers) about six months ago

I’m just going to be blunt: that’s not remotely accurate.  The author was uninformed perhaps.

There are a limited number of local items sporadically available—mostly lettuces, gourds, bananas, long beans, eggplant, and a citrus called calamansi

Once again, to be blunt: that is simply not true.  The author needs to visit farmers’ markets or make a relationship with local farmers.  There is a huge amount of local produce available year-round.

Some of my favorite dishes (fresh guacamole or redeye gravy for Sunday biscuits) aren’t possible here, and can’t be faked.

I have no idea what redeye gravy is, but fresh guacamole?  We are up to our ears in avocados December to March.  It sounds like the author simply isn’t aware of the food situation on Guam.

Okay, I looked up redeye gravy: “the drippings of pan-fried (or sometimes baked) sausage, country ham, bacon, or other pork, sometimes mixed with black coffee.”  (Healthy!)  Now, there’s bacon aplenty available on island, and we are not short on coffee either.  Is there a particular super-fancy type of bacon the author is missing?  She should really talk to a local grocer or form a co-op to place special orders.

In conclusion, the author says:

Is Guam truly a food desert? Not technically. We always have access to food—even produce, if you’re willing to buy frozen when the fresh options run out or go bad.

Guam isn’t a food desert at all.  There’s no “technically.”

The people of the Marianas historically ate primarily local fruits and vegetables, supplemented by seafood, rice, and fanihi.  Today, you could easily do the same, but it would certainly require a baseline investment in human relationships and mapping out the stores and farmers’ markets that carry your hearts’ desires.

Now, I am a vegan.  I only eat plants.  No animal products.  Most people speculate that it must be difficult on Guam, but in fact, for me, it is much easier than it was in a Chicago far suburb, due to the abundance of fresh local fruits and vegetables.  There are also many local restaurants and specialty stores that carry vegan-friendly items.

I particularly want to note Healthy Hearts in Dededo, Simply Food in Agana Heights, and Nuts and Grains in Oka (Tamuning).  At least two branches of the coffeehouse Port of Mocha will juice pure fruits and vegetables for low cost.  I always find good fruits and vegetables at the local grocery store and I’ve been grateful to be connected through a friend of a friend to a local farmer’s co-op.  I love our Mangilao Night Market for beautiful local produce.

There’s actually a quite wide awareness on the island of health and obesity problems relating to diet.  The Seventh-Day Adventist church here has several initiatives, like their restaurant Heavenly Veggies (which I just love).

The reason for the change in Chamorro diet and broader Guam diets from a very healthy and sustainable local diet to one glutted with fast food and Spam is, to be frank, colonization, militarization, and Americanization.  It is beyond ironic to hear a U.S. military spouse complain about the food options available on island when it is the U.S. military that brought the unhealthy options in and the forcible Americanization of the populace that initiated the fast-food chains.

Many people on island do follow beautiful traditional cuisines.  I believe poverty, breakdown in the traditional extended family unit, and lack of education are reasons why others have shifted to the fast-food Americanized eating choices.  This is not something to be scorned or pitied.  Social services are seeking to do their part, but there are broader political factors at play here.

There is a one-word answer to why the Pacific Islands, including Micronesia and Guam, have terrible food choices: COLONIZATION.

That one word really about covers it.  In 1898, and even pre-WW2, eating habits on Guam were so different.

The Jones Act is also an important feature to consider.  It affects imports and exports from Guam and drives our prices way up.  It was imposed on Guam by the U.S. federal government.

Guam is an unincorporated territory of the United States.  This is a difficult political status for many people.  I myself was stunned to be informed, upon moving to Guam, that I now could no longer vote for U.S. president.  That is absolutely bizarre and unfair for a natural-born citizen (Michigan), and it is bizarre and unfair for the peoples of Guam, who are U.S. citizens by law, but apparently second-class citizens.

Guam is not a state; it is not an independent nation; it is not freely associated.  It is a territory, a possession, a modern-day colony, a “non-self-governing” entity among 16 others remaining in the world today on the United Nations’ list.

This affects grocery stores, farmers, and every other aspect of daily life on Guam.

When I first moved here, back in 2012, it was a terribly odd experience for me too.  I have often felt very out of place and very alone.  I definitely experienced culture shock — indeed, I still do.  Food sources were never an issue, and I would never have described Guam as a food desert.  I flourished here as a vegan from the beginning.  But personally and professionally, I encountered rather unexpected difficulties.  I’ve come to realize those difficulties are not (at all) unique to Guam, however.  They just represent situations I had not personally encountered before.

I understand, and I truly have sympathy for, what a white woman feels following in the footsteps of colonizers to the western Pacific.  I’m not military, but I am academic.  I moved for the job.  We know we are out of place.  We know we represent standards of appearance that have been oppressive.  We know our relative privilege is obscene.  It’s uncomfortable.  We can feel the resentment, distance, and hostility, and we know it’s justified on a systematic level.  It’s an unpleasant, perpetually uncomfortable situation for anyone remotely sensitive to the facts.

But in another sense I really have just no patience for “what a white woman feels”!  You have to broaden your awareness.  Yes, it is a bit uncomfortable to confront your own relative privilege in the world.  But it is wonderful to be able to help others and to be helped by others once you can get past your assumptions and prejudices.

You see such a small portion of reality when you only look at your own experience.

To sum up: Kimberly Hunter Soltano is saying is that Guam is unique or unusual in its food situation, a spectacular desert.  I would posit instead, frankly, that Guam is not at all unique or unusual in terms of access to food.  We are not the spectacle.  Fish, fruits, vegetables — local produce — this is the real.

Most of the U.S. eats an absolutely, absolutely appalling diet.  Obesity rates are high there as well.  Most regions there as well don’t have specialty food items like veal or fresh certified-organic strawberries available easily to everyone (cost is also an issue for many people in the U.S.).

I would posit that Guam, with its beautiful plentiful local produce, is far more of a food haven than most places in the States.

Place is mirror.

UPDATE: I ran across this 2015 article, published on the U.S. military website for Guam, no less (www.guam.stripes.com), which literally begins:

“On any given day on Guam, you don’t have to drive far to find yourself face to face with the island’s freshest produce.”

The author lists off a proposed weekly schedule: Monday is a produce stand in Piti, Tuesday the Fishermen’s Co-Op and the farmers’ night market in Agat,  Wednesday the Chamorro Village farmers’ market during the day, Thursday the Mangilao night market and Guam Lock and Key for Boonie Bee Honey, Friday Cost-U-Less or Island Fresh (major chains) for freshly delivered Grow Guam lettuces, Saturday the Dededo farmers’ market . . . And this is not even a comprehensive list!  Kudos to the author for recognizing and celebrating the facts about Guam’s local bounty.

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