Malnutrition: A Slow-Motion Natural Disaster
Apr 21, 2011
One of my favorite meals from childhood was a sandwich served on white bread with leaf lettuce, an onion, a tomato fresh from the garden--and Spam fresh from a can. Each can produced six slices of meat and my father always got the thickest one. Today, my grandkids continue our family tradition: They love their Spamwiches.
In Guatemala, families are forging their own traditions--and delivering a million healthy meals to malnourished children with a new product called Spammy.
Spammy is a fortified turkey spread whose specific purpose is to fight malnutrition. Not only is it inexpensive to manufacture and distribute, but Spammy also packs a lot of sustenance into each of its 3-ounce recyclable cans. The meat contains high-quality protein as well as zinc, iron, and vitamin B--the very things that malnourished people desperately need in their diets. Spammy is also shelf-stable, which means that it doesn’t require refrigeration.
This year, Hormel promises to provide over 1.5 million cans of Spammy to impoverished people in Guatemala.
It chose Guatemala for this project because this Central American nation of 13 million has such a high rate of poverty. A pair of nonprofit organizations, Food for the Poor and Caritas Arquidiocesana, work with family centers and orphanages to put Spammy into the hands and bellies of the people who need it most.
The problem in Guatemala isn’t that people don’t have enough to eat, but that they don’t eat enough of the right things. Poor diets result in stunted growth and diminished cognitive development. The victims are also more susceptible to disease.
According to some estimates, almost half the children of Guatemala show signs of malnutrition. The rate is 80 percent in some remote Mayan villages. The long-term ramifications for national health are troubling.
A recent report by Christiane Amanpour of ABC News highlighted the problem. Her team drew a blue chalk line on a wall, marking the World Health Organization’s estimate for the proper height of nine-year-old children. Then they compared Guatemalan children in Guatemala with Guatemalan-American children in Florida. The kids in Central America were uniformly shorter.
This is a problem of nurture, not nature. It’s about access to healthy food.
In newspapers and on television, we’re always reading about catastrophes such as earthquakes and tsunamis in Japan, New Zealand, and Haiti. Global malnutrition is a slow-motion natural disaster that doesn’t make headlines everyday but still demands our sustained attention.
Spammy is perfectly situated to confront this challenge. It’s not just a tool of relief, but possibly an instrument of economic empowerment if it improves the intellectual development of the boys and girls who will create the jobs and run the businesses that represent Guatemala’s future.
The children of Guatemala eat Spammy for the taste. They may not fully appreciate what the food’s biofortification does for them while they’re enjoying their meals, but their parents and teachers surely have noticed. “According to our local partners,” reports Hormel, “the children have more energy and their grades have improved.”
Spammy fits right in to Guatemala’s native cuisine. The locals mix it with beans or serve it with tortillas. Other popular dishes involve pasta, pizza, and stew.
This comes as no surprise. Spam has a remarkable history of cultural adaptation. Many Pacific Islanders, introduced to Spam by American GIs, consider meat-in-a-can something of a delicacy. When Barack Obama visited Hawaii shortly after his presidential election in 2008, the media reported on the meal he sought out: “Spam musabi,” a Hawaiian dish that features grilled Spam and rice wrapped by seaweed.
As a food producer and animal scientist, I’m always searching for new technologies and innovative approaches to feed our domestic and global consumers. Spammy provides a perfect example. It re-engineers an old manufacturing process and fits it to a modern need that meets all the environmental, economic, and social criteria for product sustainability.
How long before Guatemalans and others discover the wonders of the Spammywich?