Milk, Food Aid and the Narrative of Lack

This post by guest contributor Nassim Nobari is the first in a series exploring the cultural, economic and health implications of distributing milk and other dairy products as food aid in communities where dairy is not traditionally consumed. As we have noted elsewhere, Heifer International and other hunger relief organizations have long promoted dairy consumption and production in countries where much of the population is lactose intolerant, and despite the fact that native plant crops are capable of producing equal or greater amounts of protein, calcium and other nutrients. (1)

chia field

The state of Chiapas gets its name from the chia seed, a calcium powerhouse.

I was recently in Mexico to research the effect of food aid on local food cultures, and in particular the role of milk distribution in creating a culture of milk consumption. While there, I met someone who had worked in Haiti for several years, and, upon hearing about my project, he told me the following story about the effects of food aid in Haiti.

In the middle of the last century, Haiti produced and consumed its own rice as well as a variety of grains and root vegetables. At some point, it even exported rice as aid. And then, following a natural disaster, Haiti started being flooded with American rice, which killed off local rice production, as Haitian farmers couldn’t compete. (2) The American rice was milled white rice with little nutritional value, while Haitian rice was brown. The effect of killing off local production was therefore not only economic but directly nutritional as well. And thus, in supposedly addressing one problem, another one was created, leaving Haitians more in need of measures to address malnutrition.*

Food aid can not be thought of in disjunction from the economic system in which it takes place. As critics have long pointed out, it has often been built on a donor-based logic, which means that a primary function of food aid is often to fulfill the needs of donors – for example rice or milk producers – as opposed to the needs of the recipients. As expected, however, rhetoric around food aid focuses on the recipients – their starvation, their malnutrition, their poverty. Food aid is portrayed exclusively as a generous donation to address a pressing need in the recipient population.

Part of my work in Mexico was to look at the effects of food aid – in changing local markets, one also changes local food cultures. But analyzing the effects of aid also involves taking a critical eye to the narrative of lack. Is it real? Is it created? Is it being effectively addressed through aid? Is it the result of a larger systemic issue? If so, how does the chosen form of food aid address the factors that created the need?

In the case of Haiti, aid wiped out important sources of nutrition and replaced them with empty calories. (3)  At some point in the cycle, the lost nutrients will need to be recuperated, very possibly with more aid. The point is this: wherever malnutrition exists, it has a story and a cause, yet the marketing of food aid is largely predicated on the implicit notion that malnutrition, hunger and poverty are simply default states or conditions in many regions of the world.

got milk spanishWhen thinking about the distribution of milk to children, it’s interesting to take stock of the other foods that make up, or could make up, their diets. The idea that milk is an essential source of calcium is for many an almost unshakable truth – vegans who claim they get their calcium from almonds or broccoli are often met with doubtful looks. The same belief exists in Mexico. My conversations with women have yielded that they are exposed to the constant message – from medical professionals and commercials – that milk is a necessary source of calcium for them and their children.

Ironically, the basis itself of Mexican food is the tortilla, which is traditionally highly rich in calcium. For thousands of years, tortillas have been made with a process called nixtamalization, whereby the grains of corn are soaked in a lye solution for an entire day. The corn is then rinsed and ground and tortillas are made with the resulting wet mass. Nixtamilization drastically improves the nutritional profile of corn in several ways, among which, by adding calcium. In recent decades, however, traditional tortillerias have been mostly replaced by those selling Maseca tortillas, a brand owned by the large Mexican multinational Gruma. The move from an artisanal to an industrial process has resulted in a tortilla that is less calcium-rich. (Of course, people have also started consuming large amounts of other products churned out by Big Ag – coke, sabritas, etc – none of them nutritionally dense).

An approach that would truly benefit recipients would be to nurture and build on the existent basis – and the basis in Mexico is extremely rich. The state of Chiapas actually gets its name from the chia seed, another calcium powerhouse. An abundance of greens have also traditionally been grown in milpas and harvested in the wild, but their consumption is declining. As milk and other industrial foods are ushered into marginal communities as food aid, traditional food systems are being dismantled by the market forces that create malnourished kids.


A magazine ad from the Mexican Association of Pediatricians

It’s worth taking a moment to consider the implications of a narrative that positions milk as essential in a context where it is not traditionally consumed.

Imagine growing up in the West. You’ve rarely, if ever, come across yucca. As an adult, you suddenly start to see it everywhere. It is promoted to the middle-class through commercials, and gracefully bestowed on the poor to ensure their health. Medical staff insist that mothers absolutely must feed their children yucca everyday. It would seem that until that moment in history, nothing your family had grown or eaten for generations, nothing you could find in a store growing up, was nourishment enough to ensure your children would be well-fed.

The promotion of milk is linked to another implicit narrative of lack. Many foods are said to be healthy – some have been even labeled “superfoods.” But to falsely position a food as necessary is something else altogether. (4) As dairy becomes increasingly prominent in public health discourse and social assistance programs around the world, it subtly delegitimizes traditional foods as possible sources of nutrition and health. The idea may be unarticulated but clear: before the Spanish brought their cows and culture, there was no way for children in Chiapas to have strong bones and develop healthily. Luckily for them, Nestlé, Lala and others continue their benevolent crusade.

(1) To cite one example, Heifer International is largely considered responsible for the kick-off of industrialized dairy in Japan after World War II. Additionally, Heifer boasts that their projects produced 3.6 million gallons of milk in one year in Uganda, and developed a national dairy program in Tanzania.

(2)  Many articles confirm the destructive effect of US food aid on Haitian food systems. This piece by Haiti Grassroots Watch explains that rice imports replaced a diverse rural diet of “roots and tubers, maize meal, and sorghum.” Drastic increases in rice consumption due to food aid have positioned Haiti as the largest rice consumers in the Caribbean. Sorghum and corn, previously important staples, are now considered “inferior.” Similarly, the dumping of surplus American chicken has been instrumental in repositioning chicken from a luxury to a staple.

(3) It is commonly assumed that food insecure regions lack, by default, the resources or technology to feed their own populations. This is often a false and pernicious characterization that overlooks the systemic causes of hunger and malnutrition, and justifies ill-conceived solutions.

A better approach to food aid is to properly identify needs, and to source food (or provide cash to source food) as locally as possible. Generally, however, the Global North should be doing less, rather than more, if the nutritional status of food insecure regions is to be improved. Indeed, the United States and the rest of the Global North push for free trade deals and policies that are harmful to small farmers and eaters; less intervention in this regard would result in fewer farmers leaving their land to become migrant workers, less food exported as cash crops, and, in sum, less of the conditions that underpin hunger and malnutrition in the first place. Positive actions would then include policies that support small-scale, local agriculture and that bolster rather than weaken local economies.

(4) In the case of animal milk, it must be noted that mothers’ milk is species specific; that is, it is custom-formulated by the mothers of a given species to meet the unique nutritional needs of the babies of that species. No mammal requires the mothers’ milk of another species.

Nassim Nobari
Nassim Nobari is the Co-founder and Director of Seed the Commons. As a long-time social justice activist, she sees the transformation of our food systems as key to achieving a more just world. Her unique programs help build the food movement while promoting animal liberation instead of farming systems based on animal exploitation. Nassim holds a Masters in social psychology and is fascinated by the ways in which social norms are maintained and transformed. She has been studying the global spread of dairy consumption as an example of dominant groups shaping dietary norms. For more of her writing, visit her blog.