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Centavitos Against Food Insecurity: Structural Violence, Charity, and Technical Fixes in Guatemala

On March 23rd, 2021, the 2020 yearly results for the “Gran Cruzada Nacional por la Desnutrición” (Great National Crusade for Malnutrition) were presented in a press conference held in the Guatemalan National Palace. For a little over an hour, several ministers made short speeches about the success of their activities related to programs attempting to prevent food insecurity in the country. After, a company highlighted a donation for acquiring a nutritionally improved flour to complement children’s diets. The event ended with some words from the Guatemalan president, Alejandro Giammattei. He explained that lowering malnutrition rates in Guatemala is a communal effort that must be carried out by civil society, business, and the government. He then invited national banks to institute a new campaign in which account holders donate the leftover “little cents” (centavitos) from their bank account balance each month.

“The most account holders are going to give away is 99 cents a month and the least is one cent. I bet no one would look at their checkbooks at the end of the month for the pennies. It would not cost them very much, but the sum of all the account holders willing to collaborate would equal millions of rations to combat malnutrition,” he said. Many of us watched in disbelief at his proposal of solving with charity donations a problem that resulted from decades (if not centuries) of abandonment and government neglect towards those who are most vulnerable to food insecurity. This was especially shocking during a moment in which hunger had been exacerbated due to the terrible mismanagement of the COVID-19 public health crisis, an economic recession due to prolonged closures, and a humanitarian crisis created by consecutive hurricanes, Eta and Iota. These had left entire communities underwater, an apt metaphor for the state of many Guatemalan communities’ contemporary struggles against food insecurity.

The Great National Crusade for Malnutrition is the latest in a series of national plans from different governmental administrations attempting to confront food insecurity and prevent malnutrition. Food insecurity and the prevention of malnutrition have been variably prioritized by governmental authorities and society over the last fifty years in Guatemala, but in the last couple decades these have moved to the forefront of the national agenda. However, this renewed focus has produced few results. Programs and interventions have not been sustained over time, funding has been reallocated, and the shadow of corruption constantly looms. In all, food insecurity has largely persisted among many households and rates of malnutrition remain largely unimproved. In this post, I argue that the systematic abandonment of food security as a national priority is a form of structural violence against the most vulnerable people in Guatemala. This situation has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Violence as the problem with food insecurity

As defined by the Food and Agriculture Organization (2008), food insecurity is the lack of “regular access to enough safe and nutritious food for normal growth and development and an active and healthy life.” The causes of food insecurity extend beyond the food system itself. Households suffering or vulnerable to it arise in social structures characterized by inequality. Food insecurity is a consequence of structural violence (Booth and Pollard 2020).

The Guatemalan State was built to maintain economic and social privileges for a small group of people, while the majority are systematically denied access to certain goods and services, such as access to land. Vulnerability to food insecurity is built on a situation of permanent abandonment of people’s needs, shaped by economic inequality, structural racism, and lack of gender parity. The situation has been exacerbated by the economic demands of neoliberal capitalism. In the country, although governments maintain a sustained discursive interest in eliminating food insecurity, there are few efforts to transform the structures that cause the problem.

Moreover, food insecurity is not a neutral measurement. Food insecurity and its accompanying concept of food security depoliticize hunger by blurring its structural causes and transforming it into a technical problem that can be fixed at the individual level (Carney 2015). This process reflects an understanding of food as a commodity instead of a human right. Within this context, the solution belongs to the realms of food assistance, food supplementation, and food fortification in lieu of overcoming poverty and unequal structures. This is particularly poignant in Guatemala, where the first nutritionally improved flour to prevent malnutrition was developed and commercialized (Tartanac 2000), although it still has the highest rate of chronic malnutrition in the continent (Corvalán et al. 2017).

The big picture

There are many consequences of food insecurity for the individual and their community. I focus here on rates of malnutrition to demonstrate its human toll and the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic. Despite a discursive interest in the prevention of food insecurity and its consequences, Guatemalan policies have consistently not been successful in its eradication. Indicators of malnutrition can be anthropometric, biochemical, or clinical and can be measured in both adults and children. However, public health has focused its attention on child and maternal malnutrition at the population level because in younger individuals consequences can be prevented or reversed, which in turn results in more promising expectations for the future of the child and the population.

Chronic malnutrition, measured as linear stature (length/height) which remains two standard deviations below what is defined as normal for a child, has affected half of the children in the country[1] for as long as there is data. This condition is linked to sustained lack of access to nutritious foods, health services, water, and sanitization—all structural conditions. The rates are higher among rural and/or indigenous children,[2] showing how some groups have been historically abandoned and neglected by the state.

Acute malnutrition, measured as weight below what is expected given the height/length of a child, has been less prevalent in the country. However, it has increased due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the resultant economic crisis.[3] Structural conditions related to food insecurity have been exacerbated by the pandemic, leaving more children in danger of acute malnutrition as a result.

Possible solutions?

There are two main approaches to understanding and solving food insecurity and malnutrition: food security and food sovereignty. Each of these have independent origins, different theoretical underpinnings, and reflect different value assumptions with regard to food, food systems, and hunger (Carney 2012). Therefore, these approaches will produce different results.

Food security, linked with the agricultural policies typified by the Green Revolution, is associated with “food aid” programs that the United States established around the world since the 1970s. This approach sees the problem as related to a lack of knowledge and practical solutions, and usually offers quick technological fixes such as food fortification and biofortification. This approach does not address the structural causes of the problem and often exacerbates the condition by individualizing both the problem and the proposed solutions.

Guatemalan plans and interventions to solve malnutrition are aligned with the food security approach by using technical fixes. One of the first attempts to solve malnutrition in the country was a technical fix, the development of a nutritionally improved flour destined to prepare atol.[4] This flour was created in the mid-twentieth century by an academic research institute and shortly after the formula was transferred to a major food company to be commercialized. Nowadays, every person in Guatemala knows (and probably has regularly consumed) this flour, but malnutrition remains. Since then, development policies and programs have regularly included the use of a nutritionally improved flour to be used as complementary food for children as part of their interventions. While supporters view these interventions as a solution for malnutrition, the acquisition of these supplements has been questioned under several administrations for corrupt practices.

An orange mug holds a milky white liquid and sits on a blue and green striped woven blanket.

In Guatemala, nutritionally improved flours are usually served as atol. Photo by Andrea Díaz.

Another issue is the lack of consistent governmental funding to solve the problem and the emphasis on funding solutions through charity. This is exemplified by the president asking the citizens for pennies. But this pervasive emphasis on charity to solve the problem exists at all levels. Being a Guatemalan myself, I have witnessed how many projects are supported by donations, which eventually leads to their lack of sustainability. I am not saying that charity is bad in itself; in fact, I believe it is necessary right now, especially if it is understood and practiced as an act of solidarity. Instead, I am pointing out how other issues that could potentially generate big improvements, such as proper water sanitization and sufficient funding for programs, are consistently under-prioritized and sometimes outright ignored. This condition helps reproduce the social and economic structures that maintain food insecurity over time in Guatemala, perpetuating this violence against the most vulnerable.

A more recent approach to the problem of malnutrition is food sovereignty. This is grounded in a rights-based approach to the food system and requires participation and sovereign decision-making by those directly affected by the problem. Food sovereignty implies communal organization, participation, and recognition of each community’s agency to establish their own relationship with food. The practice of food sovereignty is usually connected with agroecological techniques and has garnered increasing attention in Guatemala (Copeland 2019). For example, in Guatemala there is always the use of traditional mesoamerican agricultural technique of milpa, in which farmers intercrop maize with legumes, squash, herbs, and other useful plants that are primarily destined for direct household consumption.

Conclusion

As I write this conclusion, there has been little to no improvement in the condition of food insecurity in Guatemala. Rates of malnutrition either remain stagnant or are worsening. Despite performing acts of charitable concern such as those observed in the presentation described at the beginning of this post, the Guatemalan government has historically abandoned the issue of food security. There is a sustained lack of political interest in coherent programs and interventions are rarely sustained over time. Funding is scarce and prone to corrupt management. Even with the severe crisis produced by the Covid-19 pandemic, the authorities have not given the issue the attention it requires. In asking for spare “little cents,” the president has clearly shown his lack of real commitment to the issue.

However, part of my argument here is that there are other possibilities. To solve the violence produced by food insecurity and malnutrition, it is urgent to translate the performed interest shown in acts of charity and to make them tangible sustained efforts, communal as the Guatemalan president said, in order to care for those who are more vulnerable. To adequately explore a different approach to the problem of food insecurity means to attend to the current realities and to build different futures where everyone has everything they need in life. This is an un-postponable matter in a country where one in two children have some degree of malnutrition.

Notes

[1] 46.5% of children exhibit symptoms of chronic malnutrition (Ministerio de Salud Pública y Asistencia Social, Instituto Nacional de Estadística, and Secretaría de Planificación y Programación de la Presidencia 2017).

[2] Rates of chronic malnutrition are significantly higher among rural children (53.0% compared with 34.6% urban) and indigenous children (58.0% compared with 34.2% non-indigenous) (Gobierno de la República and de Guatemala 2020).

[3] According to official records in 2019, there were 4080 cases of acute malnutrition at the end of the epidemiological week fifteen. There were 10116 at the end of the same week in 2020 and, at the time I am writing, 9428 in 2021 (Ministerio de Salud Pública y Asistencia Social 2021).

[4] Atoles are traditional thick hot beverages, usually made from grains, that are commonly consumed in the country.


References

Booth, Sue, and Christina Mary Pollard. 2020. “Food Insecurity, Food Crimes and Structural Violence: An Australian Perspective.” Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health 44(2): 87–88.

Carney, Megan. 2012. “‘Food Security’ and ‘Food Sovereignty’: What Frameworks Are Best Suited for Social Equity in Food Systems?” Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development 2(2): 71–87.

Carney, Megan. 2015. The Unending Hunger: Tracing Women and Food Insecurity Across Borders. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Copeland, Nicholas. 2019. “Linking the Defense of Territory to Food Sovereignty: Peasant Environmentalisms and Extractive Neoliberalism in Guatemala.” Journal of Agrarian Change 19(1): 21–40.

Corvalán, Camila, Maria L. Garmendia, Jessica Jones‐Smith, et al. 2017. “Nutrition Status of Children in Latin America.” Obesity Reviews 18(S2): 7–18.

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United and Nations. 2008. An Introduction to the Basic Concepts of Food Security.

Gobierno de la República and de Guatemala. 2020. Cruzada Nacional Por La Nutrición. Guatemala: Gobierno de la República de Guatemala.

Ministerio de Salud Pública y Asistencia Social. 2021. “Situación Epidemiológica de la Desnutrición Aguda (DA) (Moderada y Severa) en Niños Menores de 5 Años a la Semana Epidemiológica 15.”

Ministerio de Salud Pública y Asistencia Social, Instituto Nacional de Estadística, and Secretaría de Planificación y Programación de la Presidencia. 2017. VI Encuesta Nacional de Salud Materno Infantil 2014-2015.

Tartanac, Florence. 2000. “Incaparina and Other Incaparina-Based Foods: Experience of INCAP in Central America.” Food and Nutrition Bulletin 21(1): 49–54.

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