Fat no more: The choice is yours

At half past three in the morning, a desk nurse staggered out of the hospital, exhausted from her double shift.  Clerking at the hospital for over ten years, she saw first-hand the effects an unhealthy lifestyle can lead to.  But she was starving at this hour, and spending time and money cooking with overpriced ingredients was not a choice. The smell of fried noodles from the street trolley was beckoning and was the only thing on her mind, even though she was well aware how overweight she was.  
 
Urban food security is a socio-economic problem that we may be more familiar with than we think.  This is because food security and obesity are often viewed as separate issues. When we think of food insecurity and hunger, images of scrawny, emaciated children living in famine countries come to mind.  Yet food insecurity exists everywhere, and often in countries where there are food surpluses rather than food shortages. Even Thailand, known for its exports in fruits and rice, is not an exception.

Ten million of the Thai population is considered undernourished, according to the Thai Health Promotion Foundation. Paradoxically, many of these undernourished 10 million do not look like the impoverished children most imagine. Referring to the Health Information System Development Office, one in three Thais are overweight and one in 10 are on the verge of obesity.
 
How is it possible that obesity and food insecurity can coexist in a world where enough food is produced for everyone to have a healthy life? Moreover, researchers from the National Health Interview Survey found that people working in healthcare, particularly women, have the second highest obesity rates behind protective services.
 
How is this possible?  Obesity is prevalent in our society and contrary to popular belief, undernourished does not equal underweight.
 
‘Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life,’ was the definition agreed at the 1996 World Food Summit.
 
And if we take a step back to understand food security, we find that the complexity of the problem extends beyond the dimension of food availability or food production. Aside from food availability, access, utilization, and stability are other dimensions that should be given serious considerations. Access, for instance, is still a prevailing issue.  Food insecure and low-income people can be especially vulnerable to obesity. With lack of access to hygienic, sanitized, and healthy foods that are affordable, exacerbated by high exposure to marketing of fast foods, they fall victim to nutrient deficiencies and diet-related chronic diseases.  
 
Even though health and organic foods are a rising trend, a Consumer Report study reveals they are typically 20 to 100 percent more expensive than their conventional counterparts and thus only affordable to the privileged few. Those who cannot afford the luxury of health foods are reliant on ‘normal’ agricultural produce. But the amount of chemical fertilizers and pesticides used in these agricultural produce is concerning.

Mr. Chamnean Buacheen, a vegetable grower, says: “Personally, I am scared when eating vegetables and try to wash them carefully before I eat them.” He said he needed to apply quite heavy loads of chemical pesticides in the vegetables for getting nicely looking ones.

“We use chemicals. They kills pest. We can sell vegetables,” said Mr. Chamnean who has grown vegetables for 20 years.


 
Past efforts to tackle food security have been narrowly focused on production.  Today, a push to increase awareness that food available does not mean food security is greater needed.  Simply being rid of hunger does not mean one is food secure. In the next 35 years, nine billion people are expected to be living on this planet earth. Yet, in the end, the problem of food insecurity is not as simple as availability.  Not only is food production a misunderstood issue, but availability of unhealthy food as well contributes to food insecurity.  Urban poverty and low income, as an overarching issue influences access to safe and healthy foods.   Even healthcare workers are unable to escape the consumption trap.
 
Without addressing the other dimensions of food security besides availability but including accessibility, affordability, utilization, and stability the amount of people wholly dependent on street food (many of them office workers) will prevail and the number of overweight and undernourished will continue to rise.
To prepare a ground for long-term food security, the ASEAN Sustainable Agrifood System (ASEAN SAS) project, a joint initiative between the ASEAN Secretariat and the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH on behalf of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), brings key players along the line of food supply chain from both public and private sectors to recognise their interconnected roles and responsibilities in supporting each other to secure the future food security in ASEAN.
“When we talk about availability of food, Thailand shows no significant sign of the problem. But in reality, our nation has a problem in accessibility. There are a different range of incomes in our society, which mean while some people have no problem affording their food, some have limited financial power to put food on their family’s tables. In the next 10 years, this issue will be more intensified if we do not implement policies on food and nutrition security at the national level soon,” says Ms. Pathumwadee Imtour, Plan and Policy Analyst (Senior Professional Level), National Bureau of Agricultural Commodity and Food Standards under Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives, Thailand.

 

Source: Prevalence of overweight populations for adults of both sexes by nation in Southeast Asia. Please don't eat Vietnam. Data: World Health Organization (2011)

How is it possible that obesity and food insecurity can coexist in a world where enough food is produced for everyone to have a healthy life?

Low-income people can be especially vulnerable to obesity. With lack of access to hygienic, sanitized, and healthy foods that are affordable, exacerbated by high exposure to marketing of fast foods, they fall victim to nutrient deficiencies and diet-related chronic diseases.  

Even though health and organic foods are a rising trend, they are typically 20 to 100 percent more expensive than their conventional counterparts.

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