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To the path of healthier food choices

Addressing a constituency branch meeting of the ruling Democratic Labour Party (DLP) over the weekend, parliamentary representative for St Michael West-Central, James Paul, expressed concern about the current eating habits of Barbadians, drawing attention to how these choices were contributing to ill health and also a rising public health care bill.

Besides the ever-popular macaroni pie, Mr Paul, who is also the chief executive officer of the Barbados Agricultural Society (BAS), singled out for special mention ramen noodles, a relatively cheap imported food product, which, he observed, “somehow has seeped into the diet of Barbadians and . . . people speak about it as if it is a staple”.

He went on: “Are we really serious in addressing the issues of nutrition? . . . I make the point that when we look at our health bill, it is as a result of certain practices that we engage in as a nation. And what are those practices? What we eat and how we eat and what we embrace.”

Mr Paul makes a valid point about the negative effect of bad dietary choices on individual health, especially considering the heavy toll which chronic non-communicable diseases like diabetes and hypertension are taking on our society. However, he overlooks an important point: namely that food choices, in many cases, are influenced by financial circumstances of the consumer. That is not to deny that convenience sometimes is
also a factor.

Nevertheless, the stark reality in Barbados today is that it can be a challenge to eat healthily, given the high price of food, especially for low-income families. A single mother with a few young mouths to feed, who can only afford, let’s say, $75 a week for food because of her meagre wages, is more likely to buy a few packages of ramen than sweet potatoes, yams or vegetables.

Her foremost concern is ensuring that her children have a full belly. That is the immediate need which is tied to a quest for survival. Anyone who shops at supermarkets heavily patronized by low-income consumers in particular often witnesses this struggle being played out at the cash register. It is common to see persons, including some senior citizens, having to make hard choices based, not on what is healthy, but on what their small budgets can afford.

Some shoppers may have a few items of healthy produce in the trolley but, when the reality of the price hits home, they decide to go without and settle for cheaper foodstuff in a bid to stretch their dollar. Compared with neighbouring islands like St Vincent and Grenadines and St Lucia, eating wholesome, preferably locally grown food is an expensive proposition
in Barbados.

As they traverse the supermarket aisles painstakingly checking prices, women in particular are frequently heard complaining and asking why, for example, does locally grown fresh produce have to cost so much. Such sentiments clearly suggest that Barbadians would like to eat healthily but the prices are prohibitive in some instances.

The incumbent DLP, on taking office following the 2008 general election, identified lowering the cost of living, especially food, as priority number one. Indeed, at the public swearing in of the new DLP Cabinet at Kensington Oval before an audience that included Dominica’s Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerritt, the late Prime Minister David Thompson spoke of exploring an arrangement to import cheap agricultural produce from that sister isle.

Nothing more was heard of the plan. Indeed, it is fair to say that after eight years in Government, the ruling DLP has not delivered on its No.1 promise of bringing down the cost of living –– which has actually gone up as a result of some Government policies. Bringing down the cost of food to encourage Barbadians to eat healthily is not an impossible objective. It requires, above all, political will reflected through an appropriate mix of policies that recognizes agriculture as a strategically important industry and places emphasis on its revival and transformation with the aim of ensuring efficient production.

Serious thought is required to make it happen because the country ultimately stands to benefit. The health of a nation is the wealth of a nation.

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