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Why is Pakistan’s affluent class so ashamed of getting extra food packed at a restaurant?

Published: February 13, 2016

We associate affluence with wastage; wastage that is criminal in a country where 61 million people are food insecure and malnutrition and stunting are common. PHOTO: REUTERS

“You are embarrassing me!”

Said the husband, upset over the fact that his wife asked the restaurant staff to pack the left overs which included one kabab, three-fourths of a naan and a bit of chicken karhai.

“But it will be wasted,”

She smiled and even carried the large mineral water bottle that was almost untouched with resolve.

It was a delightful dinner my family and I were invited to and this conversation between our host couple was all too familiar. There is the “what will people think” attitude associated with carrying home leftovers and in doing so we forget that edible, clean and fresh food will be thrown away simply because we over-ordered. We associate affluence with wastage; wastage that is criminal in a country where 61 million people are food insecure and malnutrition and stunting are common.

The numbers clash and vary, but all surveys and reports point in the direction that millions of Pakistanis live below the poverty line, with a 2015 World Bank report citing that the number is as high as over 50 per cent of Pakistan’s population. Women giving birth suffer from anemia, get too little protein and give birth to weak and often premature children.

On the other side of the social see-saw, privileged Pakistanis continue to pile their plates with food at weddings and buffets or order more than they can consume and end up wasting food, an offence that should be made a criminal offence.

But this criminal offence is not Pakistan specific. According to data released by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations, a total of 793 million people world over are estimated to be suffering from chronic hunger, regularly not getting enough food to conduct an active life. Of these, 791 million live in developing regions.

Meanwhile, in every other Hollywood movie, we see people getting up in the middle of the meal saying “I’m done” and emptying half of their plates into the trash bin.

Why did they heap so much food in their plates in the first place? And what precedent are they setting?

The perpetrators of food wastage do so both at an individual as well as at a colossal collective level. Supermarkets and franchise eateries throw away clean food items, even though most items stay okay for a while after the expiry date is over.

A very promising initiative in this regard is Lahore’s Robin Hood Army (RHA). The campaign intelligently used social media to mobilise volunteers and motivate food catering companies and restaurants to bring un-used food to those who needed to be fed.

But is that enough?

Can Pakistan learn from the recent initiative taken by France at the state level?

Recently, France became the first nation in the world that came up with a law that bans supermarkets from wasting food. French grocery stores will now have to donate unsold food to charities. As a result, millions more in need of food will be fed. The law is expected to spill over into all of the European Union eventually.

Yet here we are, Pakistan’s thankless, skimming over pictures of malnourished children with big bellies in Tharparkar dying of hunger, doing the customary “tsk tsk”, and moving on wasting the crust of the pizza slice or throwing away half the meal because it does not taste well. The scourge of hunger is not just limited to districts like Tharparkar.

Adjacent to Karachi’s affluent localities of Defence and Clifton, go visit the kitchens of your domestic help. Stories of malnourished underprivileged children abound. We follow international trends and become vegetarians and vegans for health reasons, but very few are ready to become freegans, or understand how freeganism can help feed more people use consumable food that needs to be reclaimed. We are environment friendly, or so we think, but are okay with writing off good fresh food just because the taste is not up to the mark. Maybe Pakistan needs a Tristram Stuart who comes and gives us a talk on food wastage repeatedly till we get brainwashed into respecting the food on our table.

Our lopsided food choices and unnecessary nakhray (tantrums) are also responsible for this trend of food hemorrhaging. We, as a nation, are getting more and more inclined towards eating more meat. Thus, because of the imbalanced food choices of the privileged, the demand for these food groups increases. This results in a lot of good crops going into fattening livestock to provide more food from the dairy and meat groups. When the balance is lost, the entire food chain equilibrium is lost, with more humans going hungry.

We can’t feed them all, but we can feed some. That packet of leftover food at the restaurant or café can be given to the kids at the signals. We can be more vigilant about giving away and sharing food items in our fridge and pantry before they are no longer edible. Small things will make a difference. But above all, we have to get rid of the ungrateful attitude towards food. We are the blessed ones. Let us be thankful till God is giving us enough food for the fill and share the blessing.

Drought or not, children are dying in Tharparkar, Qaim Ali Shah

The infants may not be dying of hunger, but they have no immunity to fight back any attack of weather and disease, as they are given birth by weak mothers. PHOTO: AFP

Death is a regular visitor at the doors of Tharparkar’s mothers. Within the first 10 days of 2016, 17 children died in just the Mithi area of district Tharparkar in Sindh.

Nothing new.

Between December 2013 and early March 2014, at least 124 lives were lost in Tharparkar, 67 of them at the Civil Hospital Mithi alone. These are just some registered deaths in the most (relatively) developed area of the 20,000 sq km desert comprising the district. And once again, Sindh’s Chief Minister (CM) says these deaths are being exaggerated.

This feels like Déjà vu.

Part of the statement of saeen, as CM Qaim Ali Shah is popularly known as, is probably true – the part that says that the drought is not causing these deaths.

That, Mr CM, should be cause for more concern.

It’s not that the CM and his team are doing nothing about Tharparkar. They form inquiry commissions, send trucks full of wheat, food supplies and medicines, and I am sure they sack a few officials here and there. While all of this can and does help, that help is very temporary.Saeen continues to apply band aid on the wounds of Tharparkar. The wounds inside continue to fester. None of the measures being taken for Tharparkar seem satisfactory and sustainable.

For those who know even a little about the beautiful but desolate Tharparkar know that if at all, the district were in a state of drought, that would be just a miniscule part of its issues.

Consider this.

In March 2014, many reasons for the deaths of the ill-fated children were stated by medical officials at Civil Hospital Mithi. Reasons like sepsis, blood infections, pneumonia, premature births and asphyxia. Why did these children not have even basic medical assistance is the question. Where were the first aid and the tetanus shots that could have helped the kids who died of sepsis? Why were the children not clad warmly enough, and pneumonia killed them? If according to the Provincial Disaster Management Authority (PDMA) director general, the newborns carried infections due to deliveries in unhygienic conditions at their home, why are mothers in Tharparkar still giving births at home? Why are there so many premature births in the first place?

Quoting people working on ground level in Tharparkar, open defecation is one of the major problems that causes up to 80 per cent of diseases reported in the rural areas of Tharparkar. This was shared by social activist Mohammed Siddique Rahimon in December 2015, at an event in Umerkot district where local experts discussed how poor infrastructure, a thin network of basic facilities and open defecation are among the major causes of endemic diseases. Umerkot faces the same predicaments as Tharparkar.

Purchasing substandard and expired medicines and supplying these to patients is another cause of death, according to information shared by Association for Water, Applied Education & Renewable Energy (AWARE) that works at grass root level in Tharparkar.

It is no secret that a large proportion of the population in Tharparkar does not have access to clean, uncontaminated and enough water. Water with high levels of arsenic among other contaminants in the merciless desert of Thar, when used for drinking, preparing food and irrigation of crops, cripples and kills those who consume it over long periods of time.

Is that too not the government’s responsibility?

But perhaps the biggest reason of disease and death in Tharparkar is malnourishment of its mothers. CM sahib says that if there was drought and lack of healthcare facilities, then men and women would also have suffered equally. Sir, your team is aware that mothers in Tharparkar give births while their haemoglobin level is as low as four. When the mothers are so anaemic and undernourished, what hope do the children they give birth to have to survive?

The CM is right when he says that the death of these children are largely on account of maternity-related complications and not from hunger or lack of food. But who, I respectfully ask those in-charge of governing Tharparkar, will make sure that maternal mortality is controlled in Tharparkar, and the mother is healthy and strong enough to bear a child? The infants may not be dying of hunger, but they have no immunity to fight back any attack of weather and disease, as they are given birth by weak mothers.

The first step towards solving a problem is recognising it. The problem lies in bad governance and the government not taking ownership of the painful condition of areas that come in its domain. We request those responsible to take note and step up their game for a holistic solution to the problems of Tharparkar and similar areas in Pakistan before more innocent lives are lost.