According to Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN, while there are over 800 million people who suffer from hunger, over 670 million adults and 120 million girls and boys (5-19) are obese, and over 40 million children under five are overweight. It has been observed that a combination of unhealthy diets and sedentary lifestyles has sent obesity rates soaring, not only in developed countries, but also in low-income countries, where hunger and obesity often coexist. Pakistan happens to be one of those countries where we find a stark contrast in terms of food-related conditions. Studies have shown that the country has a prevalence of malnutrition, especially in children; and at the same time, statistics show that 20 per cent of the population is overweight whereas around 4 per cent is obese.
There is a disparity in the rich and poor, and an inequitable distribution of wealth and opportunities. While this is one of the major reasons of this phenomenon, there are more critical issues that factor in as well. Climate change threatens to reduce both the quality and quantity of crops, lowering yields and rising temperatures are also exacerbating water scarcity. This furthermore emphasises the need to implement eco-conscious practices at every level.
World Food Day (WFD) is celebrated each year on 16th October to promote worldwide awareness for those who suffer from hunger and the need to ensure food security and nutritious diets for all. This year, WFD focused on taking action across sectors to make healthy and sustainable diets affordable and accessible to everyone along with nurturing the planet.
We all need to limit our consumption of foods that are high in salt, sugar and trans and saturated fats and make healthy eating as part of our daily lives. However, for most working professionals, the last thing they want to do at the end of a long day is to cook, so cheap takeaway meals are appealing. And while there are many food joints and cafes popping up in every nook and corner, there is only handful that serve healthy food which isn’t too cheap either.
Mrs Ahsan is a 37-year-old working mom who is switching to a healthier lifestyle. However, she faces quite a few hurdles to be consistent in her routine, “I work a 9-to-5 and when I come back, I have to look after my family. Clean eating is been exhausting at times, not because of what I have to eat, but because of how much it costs and how much time is needed to plan meals for the day. While I know that the fad diets aren’t the best but the cost of wholesome food leave me no choice. Eating a bowl of colourful veggies and fruits costs around the same as an average meal but it isn’t as fulfilling. Good meat is expensive and for one meal, it can buy me three different meals. So, to be consistent with my diet, I focus on one type of food,” she tells.
Mrs Ahsan is one example of many, even though her position would still be considered a privilege.
“It is simple economics. When you have such a large population and life becomes much faster like it is today, people look at convenience. With the consumerism we live in, it becomes easier to swing by a burger joint or get a kebab roll, rather than cook food,” affirms environmental activist and horticulturist, Tofiq Pasha Mooraj. “To feed a large population, you get into mass production of food which requires certain things to increase the shelf life of perishables. For that, you can genetically modify fruits and vegetables, removing sugars which decrease its nutritional value along with its flavour. The same things happen to other foods like chicken and wheat,” he adds.
Achieving ‘Zero Hunger’ is not a one-man job. Zero Hunger is a vision of the world free from hunger, malnutrition and rural poverty achieved through integrated approach and the transformation of food systems. For this, the civil society, stakeholders and governments need to work in harmony to reach this goal. However, the primary responsibility for ensuring the right to adequate food and the fundamental right to freedom from hunger rests with the government. “Pakistan has previously faced food scarcity on a number of occasions. During one of these times, the government imposed some policies that were going to help utilise the resources mindfully such as the two meatless days in a week. It was implemented across Pakistan and no one was to buy or sell meat on these particular days. For two days out of seven, there was a 15 per cent decrease in the meat demand; just by a simple order that was passed. This was a good measure and while restaurants and hotels complied, others found ways to get around it and served meat. So, we need to work together in order to make a difference,” highlights Tofiq Pasha.
While policies play a pivotal role in bringing a substantial change, the State currently struggles with its own set of issues. Not only do they have to feed 200 million people, but they also need to provide them with safe food not the processed; ridden with pesticides and chemical fertilisers. Shedding light on sustainable agricultural practices, Pasha illuminates, “I think sustainable agricultural and irrigation practices must be brought in. To be able to protect the plants, new methods and modern techniques of growing and irrigation must be used without using chemicals. For this, you still need another 10 years of research and development. Other than that, we need more land to grow organic food. The seasons are getting shorter and crops can get infected if we don’t use chemicals. This is why we need to come up with a lot of research and development in order to control it and also to control the population increase in order to make the ends meet.”
Now, we do have shops and markets that procure and sell wholly organic foods, like the Karachi Farmers Market, but it’s a niche market for now. Not everybody can afford it and it is not easily accessible to everyone. In this case, people can try and grow their own produce. For this, Pasha recommends having urban plot farms. “People can grow food for themselves. There is land available in rural areas, so we can help them farm there to get nourishing food. As for the urban areas, people can have urban plot farms in which a community or a neighbourhood can grow their food. And then there is always the option of having a vegetable garden in your own lawns and certain plants indoor,” he suggests.
Another one of the major causes of food scarcity in Pakistan is due to food wastage. In this regard, Sameer Beg from the Robin Hood Army Pakistan (RHA) in Karachi, elucidates, “The problem is that one-third of the food made is wasted and not consumed. So, we cannot say that there is a lack of food, but there is surplus which is not accessible to those who need it. Being a rice exporting country, we can probably never have lack of food in Pakistan. It’s just that those who are privileged tend to waste, and the ones who live below the poverty level eat once a day - that too not a nutritious meal.”
The RHA is a zero-funds volunteer organisation that works to get food from restaurants and communities to serve the less fortunate. Currently, they are operational in Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad and Hyderabad, with plans to expand in Quetta and Peshawar as well. “Our model is simple. We collect surplus food on a daily basis from restaurants and caterers that they don’t end up selling. We also collect leftovers from weddings and parties and distribute it among those homeless who go to sleep hungry. Furthermore, we serve to organisations on low-budget that hardly have money to cook meals for their shelters, government hospitals, slums, old age homes and orphanages. We try to help them as much as we can. Our main drives are on Sunday where 50 to 60 people get together and collect food for the slums. We sometimes get food for 4-5 days or even a week. During weekdays, we mostly do drop-offs. Even though, some people provide us with fresh food to support us, we prefer surplus food which is 90 per cent contribution,” he adds.
Sharing his efforts regarding food wastage and providing healthier meals, Sameer tells the scribe, “From our end, we have to try and not waste. When we order at restaurants, we should also think about the wastage. Whatever leftovers you have, try to give it to someone in need on the way back instead. We need to take ownership and you don’t need money for it. We have managed to feed 1.1 million people in four cities without taking a single rupee. All you need is willpower, dedication and passion. As far as organic food is concerned, we used to give children chips and juice before but now we give them milk and cupcakes. We realise that the nutritional value should be there especially for kids. We have adopted two charity schools and most of these children don’t even have breakfast in the morning. We provide them with lunch twice a week -boiled rice and boneless chicken, and the menu varies - but at least it is nutritious in value and the kids need it for their growing.”
According to MBBS doctor and Certified Lifestyle Medicine Coach, Dr Almas Nasar Hasan, “The global community in healthcare is heavily engaged in research and practice to make ‘health’ easy to achieve with the role of nutrition in one’s lifestyle. However, alleviating the illnesses born from bad food choices also require awareness about ‘food timings.’ If we consume a highly nutritious meal at a bad time, it can weaken the system. This also proves that we can minimise ill-effects of ‘unhealthy food’ such as fast food by consuming it at a certain time. Hence, to achieve optimum health, we need to understand the role of syncing the food with our circadian rhythm.”
Dr Almas further explains, “We don’t have any calorie-counting centre in our brain. We are sucked into this practice of counting calories (at the expense of our mental peace), because popular science has downplayed the importance of ‘body wisdom’ and ‘intuitive eating’. There are many ways to consume food and water that can empower our body’s innate disease-fighting mechanism no extrinsic medicine can find parallel to. For example, food becomes medicine if you prioritise having breakfast in morning as soon as you wake up; drink water half hour before and one and half hour after meal. Don’t drink water during meals as this robs your nutritious meal of its very medicinal value.”
Specifically, for pregnant women she advises, “During pregnancy, around 7 kg of weight gain is healthy. Large deviations from this weight gain can mean a range of intra-partum and post-partum suffering for both mother and child e.g. gestational diabetes and Hypertension etc in mother; hypothyroidism and cerebral palsy etc in child. Rule of thumb for pregnant women is to consume natural-unprocessed-nutritionally dense foods every 3-4 hours in day. A healthy breakfast consisting of roti or whole wheat bread with eggs, potatoes, peas, desi chicken or qeema is taken on alternate days in morning preferably before 9 am. Breakfast sets the chemical and psychological tone of the day so this must be prioritised. Bone broth (yakhni) must be incorporated daily half hour before dinner. Nocturnal sleep time must be regularised as body is repaired only during night time that is around 1-3 am. It’s recommended to sleep well before this time. Lastly, do not count calories. Instead, attend to your craving and honour your hunger with healthy options such as mixed dried fruits, fruits, vegetables, soups and homemade halwas.”
Talking about what’s missing in our daily routines and diets, Karachi-based nutritionist, Syeda Mushk-e-Bahar, says, “I think we are missing optimum nutrition from our diets. Nowadays people are moving away from their traditional diets and are instead eating more refined sugars, fats and oils. This dietary change is not only harmful for our health but also for our planet. However, if we choose a healthy diet – Mediterranean or vegetarian diet – it will not only help bettering the quality of our life but also give a safe environment to vulnerable species.”