In our Organics 4 Orphans work, we come across very complicated issues. International poverty is confounding: there’s colonialism, and tribalism, and nepotism, and at the end of the day it can seem like an impossible puzzle.
But some things are very simple.
Africans and the poor everywhere are just like us. Before anything – before we can learn or work or direct our lives in any meaningful way – we need the basics. We need to cover our biological needs.
When we are warm and safe, with full bellies and functional health we can really learn and work. Anything is possible when our basic needs are met.
In Africa, clean water and food are the starting place. With just these basic provisions, the extreme poor can take steps to improve their own lives.
When we talk about clean water, we don’t debate what kind of clean water is best. It’s basically a binary equation: clean, or not clean. The margins are very narrow, because clean water is the absence of bacteria. A few particles of bacteria can mean the difference between life and death.
Nutrition, on the other hand, is more complicated. Nutrition is about the layering of multiple compounds; it is about the presence of life-giving properties, not the absence of germs. And because nutrition is complicated, we do debate it. We are divided. Everyone has a theory of nutrition, from your grandma to your yoga instructor, and unlike our approach to water, when it comes to food, there’s a wide, wide continuum of what’s acceptable.
There’s food, and then there’s food, and thus when we talk about feeding the poor, we aren’t all talking about the same thing.
When you think about feeding the poor, you may think of food aid. You may envision burlap bags of rice or maize, distributed around dusty towns. This is one kind of nutrition. Rice and maize and the like are, in fact, what most of the poor live on. This is, technically, nutrition. It’s one end of the spectrum, anyway.
A white rice diet can sustain life, but it won’t sustain optimal life. No one can thrive and meet their full potential on a nutrient-poor diet.
When we talk about nutrition, we mean the kind that gives life. We’re talking about food so nourishing, it’s actually medicine – the very opposite of a white rice diet.
Let’s call it the Food as Medicine diet. At Organics 4 Orphans, it’s what we believe the poor need first.
But how is this possible, you might ask. People still starve. Isn’t food as medicine a bit of a stretch?
In fact, it’s not a stretch at all. Equipping the poor with food as medicine is less expensive and more sustainable than those burlap bags of grain.
It is also much, much less expensive than fixing medical systems in the developing world. Granted, these need to be fixed and we are all for better facilities and more medical practitioners. However, we believe that poor countries can best solve these problems when everyone has their basic needs met.
Think of the waste of human potential when people go malnourished. Without food, there is little energy for ingenuity or learning or ambition. Without adequate food, there is one focus: getting enough food.
Unfortunately cheap food and food aid is so devoid of nutrients as to be almost useless.
If you’ve ever eaten really badly for any length of time, you have probably noticed – at the very least – a slump in energy, difficult concentrating. If you carry on with this poor diet, you get sick. Repeatedly sick.
Children who grow up on a diet of starchy grains never get the nutrients they need for immunity or to reach their full potential. If they have access to school, they’re often too sick to go. This is where the cycle of poverty begins. It begins with the bowl or rice or ugali or maize.
Now, think of how you’ve felt when you’ve eaten well; when you’ve eaten a diet rich in unprocessed, whole plant foods. If you’ve ever lived this way, you will know the incredible difference it makes to your physical and mental performance. Your energy is steady and enduring. Your mind feels clear. You lose far less time to illness and fatigue.
If a healthy diet makes this much difference for you, imagine what a difference it can make for all 1 billion of the world’s extreme poor.
Imagine that instead of missing school because of illness, those children could exploit every opportunity. They’d learn, they’d invent, they’d kick-start, they’d bootstrap, they’d take big initiative and solve big problems. They’d meet their full potential.
We can make this happen through community-based biointensive gardens and nutrition training. It’s a grassroots, organic solution, and it works.
We equip people with what they need to grow the most nutrient-dense foods available, and we teach them how to cultivate and use these foods to thrive, prevent and treat disease.
Follow our work at Organics 4 Orphans (O4O) to find out how we’re making this happen.