I'm still experiencing the learning curve on eating healthily in South Africa. I think I’m making significant progress. As with everything else here in South Africa, it has taken awhile.
I've spoken before about how fresh foods are significantly more expensive than pre-packaged, snacky, food-products and about how I'm spending most of my living stipend on buying fresh food. But I’m learning some tricks on how to make the food money go further.
Another volunteer pointed out to me a previously untried grocer in my shopping town. I was delighted to find all of my usually procured foods at a markedly cheaper price. I was very, very happy until I discovered bugs in my food.
As I went happily about using my much less expensive oats, rice, barley and such, I noticed that every one of those products was full of those small, dark weevils that one finds occasionally in dried grain products. Not very appetizing, to say the least!
It took me awhile to figure out my problem, and decided it was the cheap grocer. I’ve since returned to the pricier, yet higher quality grocers, and have found my bug problem to have disappeared. Also, the pricier grains usually come in better packaging, a sturdier plastic, which better keeps bugs out.
Initially, I was trying to support my local grocer, but became more and more dismayed at paying three times the price for rotten food. (Not surprisingly, I discovered that my village grocer was buying the marked-down produce from the grocer that was selling the vermin-infested grains.) So, I’ve since switched to buying only soap products and other non-perishables from my local grocer, and saving my pennies for fresher produce available in town. In this way, I keep some money in the village but have fresher, more wholesome food for myself.
I’ve also been keenly interested in how other volunteers are faring with their living allowances, particularly in regards to their food budgets. At first, I was dismayed when my informal poll indicated that other volunteers were doing just fine with their living allowances, thank you very much, and ending the month with more than half of their monthly funds remaining.
I was aghast! What in the world was I doing wrong?
I later learned that the initially polled volunteers were of the “younger” in age group, and probably saved their stipends because they are young enough to thrive on inexpensive boxes of crackers, candy, and the like.
Much later, after I talked to some of the more older volunteers, (but not much older), I learned that yes, they too, were struggling with having enough stipend to get by, especially in the food category.
A brief aside: When I was volunteering in Alaska, I was readying myself for a 3-day hike in the mountains. There was a young guy to accompany us, and I was horrified to learn that he would only be bringing “trail mix” along to nourish his body for the 3-day hike. When I expressed this concern to my supervisor, she remarked, “Kids do this all the time.” So, I stood corrected. And yes, he survived 3 days of strenuous hiking through the mountains, enduring freezing temperatures, three days of steady rain, and climbing mountains, although he did seek handouts from those of us that packed more substantial foods.
And of course, I’m reminded of my graduate school days, when I got by on nothing more than ramen noodles and peanut butter, so yes, I can see how some can survive on such a diet.
However, in my advancing age and increasing concern for my health, have adopted a healthy eating style and feel, well, that my life depends upon it.
When sharing news of unhealthful eating habits among some of the younger volunteers, a sympathetic volunteer commented, “I don’t want my Peace Corps South Africa experience to feel any more of an episode of “Survivor” than it already does.” Indeed.
This brings us back to the fact that as Peace Corps Volunteers, we’re expected to live in the same manner of the people that we’re living with.
I have something of a bone of contention with this, because we are “paid” to live a bit better than the pensioners in our community. The pensioners’ diet consists mostly of meat and mealie meal pap—a stiff porridge made from corn, because that is all they can afford. However, we work and live with educators in our community, and educators are some of the most highly paid people living in South Africa.
So, our stipend has us hoping to live on meat and mealie meal pap, but our community expects us to dress nicely, have a nice car, a nice house, etc.
It is a confusing contradiction, for all involved.
The politics of food and healthy eating has food manufacturers, food distributors, and dare I say governments?, throwing highly processed, addictive, harmful-if-eaten food products at the poor. In this way, the poor purchase the only food affordable to them, become sick from malnutrition, and live their lives needing expensive health care and ultimately die. We have this problem in the US as well.
Not surprisingly then, most of the people in the rural villages of South Africa are existing on “mealie meal,” a corn product that goes far on filling the tummy, but has very little nutritional value. Rural South Africans eat a lot of meat as well, and the instance of stroke and diabetes within our communities is alarmingly high. And as with the United States, school children are likely to be snacking on chips, sweets, and sugary drinks.
But I’m learning to eat well and have enough funds to eat well. I’m still eating fresh sprouts on a regular basis, the freshest and least expensive of all of my fresh vegetables: a small bag of whole lentils costs about R8 and sprouts weeks worth of fresh vegetables. I’ve found a way to purchase clean beans and grains and high-quality produce. I’ve found a non-fat milk powder to lighten my tea.
Again, back to the politics of food and eating. There are plenty of dried milk products available to everyone living in rural South Africa, but these milk products are FULL CREAM milk products. We know that full-cream milk is very bad for you, particularly in regards to heart disease. I finally found a non-fat milk powder, in, guess where? A grocer in the shopping town that caters to the wealthier class. (I won’t mention the color of the peoples’ skin that you see patronizing these stores, but leave it to your imagination and best guesses.)
Oh dear, I’ve gotten myself—and you—into quite the political rant.
All this to say I’m eating better and am making my pennies go farther. I’m learning, I’m learning, I’m learning.
To close on a somewhat lighter note, most of the oats I find in rural South Africa are the “quick” kind, the more highly processed kind. Well, I’ve long ago fallen for traditional oats and they’re something of a find here in rural South Africa. Most of us find “Jungle Oats,” a name brand that is refined. I’ve found the same name brand in the whole-oat form: “Tiger Oats.” I love these very much. Guess the only store where I can buy them?
Thanks for hanging in there with me—time for lunch!