Can Bolivia reverse vicious cycle of convenience food & market forces?

Published on 7 March 2016

Earlier this year, Bolivia’s President Evo Morales put into effect the Law of Promotion of Healthy Feeding, which seeks to promote healthy eating habits and help to solve the problems of malnutrition in the country. Is this just in time or too little too late for Bolivians who are becoming increasingly trapped by market forces, social pressure and the addictive nature of street food?

In modern societies, food price volatility affects the production of safe foods as well as people’s eating habits and life itself. This was confirmed during our investigation as part of Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility project.

The decline in agricultural production, changing land use and increasing urbanization of rural land are the response and, in the sense of reaction, to the uncertainty which food price volatility pushed onto farmers.

In urban areas, for people on low and precarious incomes, food price volatility means working more and changing their eating habits in order to keep food on the table.

Cochabamba, which used to be known as the breadbasket of Bolivia, providing grains, vegetables and tubers for the rest of the country is now characterized by crowded streets offering fast foods of all kinds.

Proliferation of fast food stalls in poor urban areas

The proliferation of food stalls needs to be understood as part of a strategy to ensure that people are able to keep feed themselves.

The situation is aggravated when food processing, knowledge, technology and the roles people play in the household change as families become more and more dependent on market forces and street food, to satisfy not only their needs, but also the necessity to fit into a society that looks down on anyone who eats indigenous food.

The flavours and tastes of junk food have already been acquired by working adults and young people, who are constant targets for deals for burgers, sausages, chips and fried foods.

Alarming rates of obesity and poisoning

The consumption of street food is so widespread that already health statistics show alarming rates of obesity and instances of poisonings in schools.

For example four out of ten children are obese, each person drinks on average 94 litres of fizzy drinks and people spend about 60 to 70 percent of their income on food. There is also a growing trend amongst young people to consume antacids and other stomach medication to counter now common gastric diseases.

In rural areas, cancers and other diseases are growing more common as confirmed by several research participants, many of whom see a clear link between these and the increase in the consumption of junk food in the past few years.

Social exclusion and the impact on family life

Poor people who cannot afford the higher costs of street food are discriminated against, for eating like Indios, the indigenous people in Bolivia, and often retreat further away from urban centres.

Many adapt their cooking to taste more like street food and save money to “reward” family members by going out on special occasions to one of the pollerías (fried chicken shops). Those who cannot afford to eat street food often now add mayonnaise, ketchup, mustard, industrial tomato paste and additives such as monosodium glutanate (MSG) to their meals, to imitate the desired flavours.

Changes in people’s lives are equally alarming. In the rural areas, we found that parents were leaving their children for months, to go and work far away from home. Children and youth are left alone, or with a relative. These children eat whatever is easiest and cheapest to ‘cook’, buying foods from convenience stores, fast food restaurants, food stalls on the street or in schools where the supply of junk food and snacks is abundant.

Another phenomenon which is contributing to the commoditisation of food is that young Bolivians in rural areas no longer aspire to be farmers. This is something we also found in other countries in which the research was carried out.

Women remain the ones who ensure that the family is fed, by employing a range of strategies such as shopping for different items in different markets, or even adapting the food basket. One 35-year-old mother from Kami explained: “I buy the same weight of meat every week, as before. What has changed is that I buy the meat on the bone and not pure soft meat like I used to.” while another woman from Kami, a widow, explained “I don’t eat at night because I don’t have enough money; I’m happy just to give my children something to eat. I just drink some tea.”

As they have to work longer or take on extra jobs, they often no longer have time to cook traditional meals which take longer to prepare. The issue of what people eat at home, and seeing that as a form of social responsibility, is absent from discussions, as it is considered a private matter.

Bolivia’s government implements policies to tackle the problem

While the government has developed a number of policies explicitly aimed at living well, Vivir Bien, such as subsidising certain items in the food basket, distributing food subsidies for expectant mothers and providing breakfast for school children, these measures have not been enough to prevent the deterioration of quality of life in Bolivia in a context of volatile food prices.

The recent enactment of the law promoting Healthy Eating is a further attempt to overcome the deterioration in the quality of food consumption by promoting education and information on food supply and consumption. However, what we saw over the course of our research makes us pessimistic about whether education and information will be sufficient to overcome the deterioration of life for people whose eating habits and possibilities of eating well, depend heavily on market forces and unscrupulous suppliers, and to guarantee people a stable cash income.

This blog was originally written in Spanish by Rosario Léon, Associate at the Center for the Study of Economic and Social Reality (CERES) in Cochabamba, Bolivia. It was translated in English by Alex Wanjiku Kelbert and edited by Emilie Wilson. The blog is based on the recently published IDS Bulletin article Tell Me What You Eat and I’ll Tell You Who You Are’ Images: street on Cochabamba – credit mishmoshimoshi; second image – project’s own.  


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