Food Aid and Food Habits

By Shoham, Jeremy; Stainier, Bruno | UNESCO Courier, May 1987 | Go to article overview

Food Aid and Food Habits


Shoham, Jeremy, Stainier, Bruno, UNESCO Courier


Food aid and food habits

DROUGHT, floods, locust plaguesand other disasters can dramatically dislocate families from their normal environment. Households may then be forced to rely on donations of food to survive, and as a result changes in food consumption habits may occur. A number of questions have been raised about food aid of this kind. Is it likely to alter food habits? If it does, will such changes be to the benefit or detriment of individuals? How will such changes subsequently affect local and national economies? Might they establish a dependence on imports if local agriculture proves unable to adapt to altered tastes?

Questions about the potential effectsof emergency food aid programmes are particularly pertinent at this time, in view of the possibility of increasingly frequent food emergencies in many parts of drought-prone and war-affected Africa. The beneficiaries of emergency food aid are likely to become increasingly dependent on the food ration they receive, and in some cases may have to endure the situation for several years. Most major donors make every effort to supply foods traditionally used by intended beneficiaries, but this may not always be possible if such foods are not available among the surplus food commodities stored in donor countries. Local purchases may also be problematic in food emergency situations as food scarcity causes inflation.

It is convenient to distinguish betweenemergency programmes which bring food aid to indigenous populations, and refugee feeding programmes (although refugee aid is also usually described in the early stages as emergency aid). The distinction may be important in its implications for food habits, since emergency programmes are generally of shorter duration than refugee feeding programmes and receive more traditionally consumed foods, as donors have a greater chance of finding suitable short-term stocks.

Also, emergency food aid recipientswill not necessarily receive a full subsistence ration and may well continue to consume some local foods, while refugees are likely to be totally dependent on the ration for some time. While these factors may make food habit changes less likely among emergency programme recipients than among refugees, the fact that such populations may be considerably larger than refugee populations suggests that if food habit changes did occur, their effects on local agriculture would be far more significant and diffusion to other population groups more probable.

The World Food Programme (WFP)supplies the bulk of refugee food aid. Generally, at least three commodities are provided: cereal (400 grams), either maize, rice or wheat; oil or another fat (30 grams); and a protein source such as pulses or dry skimmed milk. In some programmes WFP also provides fish, meat or cheese. The total ration usually supplies upwards of 1,800 kilocalories* a head. However, in emergency rations the WFP may not be the only major donor, so that such rations are limited both in terms of the number of commodities and quantities. The main commodity is a staple food, cereal, associated if possible and if necessary with fat. The average ration provides about 1,400 kilocalories, and 40 grams of protein are recommended.

* The prefix kilo is commonly omitted from the termkilocalorie, and the "calories' counted by dieters are in fact kilocalories.

Many factors influence food habits,and people never eat simply to satisfy their physiological needs for various nutrients. They eat to achieve satiety and they eat foods with certain textures which they like. Colours also play an important role, as do cultural, social, economic and demographic factors. Some of these factors may dictate that certain foods are prohibited, and in some situations a radical change in food habits, externally imposed, may amount to a symbolic breaking with society. Hence, in the 1944 Bengal famine, many rice-eating Bengalis preferred to starve rather than eat wheat flour provided by an aid programme.

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