In mid-July, I lugged two giant suitcases to the airport and flew across the US, then the Pacific, to land on a too-short runway in Kolonia, Pohnpei. During the coming year, I’m teaching Algebra II to high school students in Pohnpei, an island state of about 35,000 people in the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM). I’ve moved from one small island to another’and Pohnpei could not be more different from Manhattan. There are a lot of New York luxuries that I miss, but its food is definitely high on the list.
There is a major problem with nutrition on Pohnpei. Although many fresh local foods are available, people often choose to eat processed, imported foods. Spam is a frequent menu item, commonly enjoyed with a heaping plate of white rice. Ramen with Kool-Aid (dry, eaten out of the packet) is an extremely popular snack; my students often come to school with red-stained fingers. According to a US Naval survey, Pohnpei had no cases of diabetes in 1948. Recent studies show that Pohnpei’s current diabetes rate has risen to 32%, alongside a 43% obesity rate. Other Pacific Island nations are also showing devastatingly high rates of diabetes: 47% in American Samoa, 44% in Tokelau, 28% in the Marshall Islands, and 23% in Nauru. For comparison, the diabetes rate in the United States is between 7 and 8 percent.
However, there are people and organizations in Pohnpei who are trying to do something about this serious health problem. The Island Food Community of Pohnpei, an NGO that first met on World Food Day in 2003, is dedicated to promoting the consumption and marketing of locally grown island foods, while focusing on health benefits, the preservation of traditional cultures, and community participation. With their “Let’s Go Local” initiative, Island Food is working to increase awareness of the health benefits of local foods (such as the delicious Karat banana, which tastes like a banana-mango hybrid), conserve rare local food species, process local foods on a small-scale, and conduct research on the traditional food system, health crisis, and nutrient analysis of local food varieties. Pohnpei has 55 species of bananas, 48 varieties of giant swamp taro, 133 types of breadfruit, and 171 different yams. With this incredible biodiversity of local plants, it should be possible for Pohnpeians to eat sustainably and healthfully, without relying on Spam and ramen at lunchtime. The real challenge comes with making people aware of the problems’and making them understand the long-term health (and ecological) consequences of poor nutrition.
Photo courtesy of Whitney Hoot