Anyone who was a child in the Burnham era will recall the absolute unbridled thrill of a (contraband) bar of chocolate or even a tin of sardines at a time when neither could be found on the shelves of local shops. Up until the 1970s commission agents imported a wide variety of processed foods and goods to Guyana. The government decided to clamp down on these imports ostensibly in a bid to tutor the taste buds of the nation, to wean us off our colonial treats and introduce us to the delights of homegrown alternatives. As any parent knows, ban the treats altogether and you risk making them even more desirable. As with the child, so with the nation. We measure our growth and prosperity these days by the number of shops laden with imported processed food products and by the proliferation of fast-food outlets, pizza parlours and ice-cream vendors on our streets.
What, then, is the endgame? A fast food outlet on every corner? Next to every school? Do we want to eat this fare for every meal, everyday? As is often the case, America, the land of excess, has produced a live example of this particular nirvana. Baldwin Park, a small town in California (population 80,000, landmass 6.5 square miles) is the birthplace of the “drive-thru” restaurant, the ultimate fast-food outlet where patrons don’t even have to leave their cars to make a purchase. The concept, the brainchild of one Harry Snyder in 1948, has become an indelible part of the culture. There are now 17 drive-thru restaurants in Baldwin Park, half of the locals are overweight and a third are classed as clinically obese. The town planners have just announced a ban on new fast-food outlets and have opened an outdoor fitness centre, running track and gymnasium dedicated to fighting childhood obesity.
There is, inevitably, a cost to the lifestyle of calorie-laden convenience. In Guyana, perhaps to compensate for the deprivations of the previous era, we routinely stuff ourselves (and our children) with hamburgers, fried chicken, fries, chips, sweets and fizzy drinks whenever possible. And the result? A few months ago, Dr Ramsammy noted that more than a third of the Guyanese population is obese. We spend 13% of our current budget on the care and treatment of diabetes and hypertension, two conditions which are strongly linked to the prevalence of certain dietary patterns. A 1992 study of nutritional patterns in Guyana and Barbados also noted that nutrition-related chronic diseases in adults have assumed epidemic proportions. The study links a “tendency towards increased consumption of refined sugars, fats and oils and foods from animal sources” with the increased prosperity and economic growth of the last 30 years [Food and Nutrition Bulletin, Vol 14, No.2 1992]. We spend over $400 million a year on medicines and other items to treat diabetic patients, a considerable sum for a small country.
Of course, it is ultimately, our choice what we put into our own mouths and those of our children. Our local markets offer a quantity and quality of fresh produce that remains the envy of most of our Caribbean neighbours. Yet we retain an ingrained preference for all things imported, for the processed and the packaged But, are we really exercising a choice? A few years ago, a GP in one of the poorer areas of Liverpool, in England, was asked to name his greatest problem. He answered that his patients committed “slow suicide. They ate the wrong food, took little exercise, smoked, ignored early symptoms and neglected to take their medication.” The local diet in Guyana has never been the healthiest, despite the abundance of fresh vegetables and grain. We have always favoured a diet of fried foods and processed foods and now it would seem we simply have greater means to indulge this. You can only ‘choose’ a certain way of life if you are aware of alternatives. In Guyanese society, healthy eating as a lifestyle choice is found at the fringes, not amongst the mainstream. The ital diet of the rastas and the vegetarian diet of some Hindus are examples. The 1992 study also cites other lifestyle factors such as exercise, smoking and alcohol consumption as contributory.
The time may have come to take a closer look at how we live. Fast-food is now part of our culture. But, as happened with fast-food outlets in France, the culture can dictate the product. French fast food outlets routinely offer a far greater selection of salads and other ‘healthy options’ than their European counterparts because this is what their clientele expects. If we continue to crave junk food, that is what the outlets will provide. If we can adjust our tastes, with a view to our waistlines and general health, the fast-food providers will adjust their products accordingly.