Whenever Nazim Mohammed goes to the supermarket to do his monthly grocery shopping he is hit by waves of anxiety.
Mohammed, a final-year UWI, St Augustine student, tries his best to manage his monthly $500 grocery allocation but he says the rising cost of food makes this very difficult, especially since he has other expenses, like paying his rent and a loan he took to help fund his studies.
So, to help keep costs low, he opts to buy highly-processed foods like baked beans, corned beef, sausages and white bread, which are affordable and easy to whip into a quick meal.
Alternatively, when he is short on time, the working student said he simply buys a cheap, convenient fast-food meal from KFC to sustain him during his all-night cram study sessions.
Fresh fruits and vegetables rarely grace Mohammed’s plate.
“Due to financial restrictions, processed items are more suitable. It’s less money and quicker,” the 23-year-old said.
On the surface, issues that stem from this choice may include lifestyle diseases like heart disease (the leading cause of death in Trinidad and Tobago), obesity and diabetes.
But for the average Joe in TT, the relationship between unhealthy nutrition and food security is more ambiguous. Discussions about food security often focus on people who do not have access to food while overlooking the nutritional aspect.
Shaienne St Hilaire, 21, a UWI student majoring in communications, said when most students are faced with the choice between a well-balanced, nutritious meal or a $20 fast food option, most opt for the latter.
“Healthier foods are so much more expensive than unhealthy alternatives. You would check the price of something and it would be such a turn-off to pick it up and purchase it.
“UWI and TT by extension have all these (fast-food) franchises. You step out your doorstep and there’s a Chinese restaurant or KFC.”
St Hilaire also said the lack of time and everyday stressors students have to deal with may also contribute to their poor diet choices.
“You don’t have time to actually go and cook food. Sometimes it’s better to order something,”
“Junk food is comfort food. When I am sad or stressed I wouldn’t want to eat a salad, I want to eat ice cream or cake. Even though it’s unhealthy at the moment, it's just instant gratification you are getting.”
For St Hilaire, education has an important part to play in helping students make healthier choices.
“You would hear TT has one of the highest figures in the world for heart disease and diabetes and still you are not seeing an active effort to push eating healthily and explaining the ramifications.
“When you are young you don’t really care and you develop bad eating habits. Then later on you have heart failure and all kinds of diseases that could have been prevented due to a change in your lifestyle.”
Isaiah Matamoro, a young doctor working on the pandemic frontlines in the public healthcare system, agreed with St Hilaire that younger people need to improve their eating habits and live a healthier lifestyle or face dire consequences to their health.
“Heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and stroke are the four leading causes of death in TT – obesity being a risk factor in the development of all of the above...When the covid19 pandemic is over, we would still be left with the epidemic of obesity, which is directly linked to poor diet and a sedentary lifestyle.
“A study conducted by the Ministry of Health showed that obesity among school-aged children between the ages of five to 18 increased by 100 per cent, and the increase in childhood obesity was five-fold from 1999-2010. That was ten years ago. Today we continue to reap the consequences of such grave numbers, as patients continue to present earlier in life with non-communicable diseases.”
Matamoro made a call to action against what he described as a public health crisis in younger people, saying it requires the resources of all sectors of society to “stand a fighting chance.”
UWI student guild president Kobe Sandy warned that the covid19 pandemic will likely cause food insecurity to spin out of control.
“With the pandemic, it has been even worse...families are not working, unemployment has skyrocketed – inflation is bad. Every day we go to the grocery, everything is rising so it is difficult to even have a good diet at home while studying.
“Your rations are really rationing and you have to do the same level of academic commitment and demands you had before covid. This is one of the reasons why there will be inequities when it comes to food security within our landscape at this time.”
The 21-year-old said it is now more difficult to target those students who are having difficulty obtaining food owing to online learning.
“Normally, if I was on hall and I didn't have any food, my roommate and colleagues would be there to help me, but now we don’t have that.”
Before the pandemic, the guild partnered with fast-food joints to provide quick meals for students, but Sandy lamented the meal options were usually unhealthy. So in September, it launched the nutritional assistance programme, in which the guild partnered with the Ministry of Agriculture and distributed 200 fresh fruit and vegetable hampers to students.
“This month we aim to deliver to 500 students food vouchers to assist them in navigating the final examination period in December.
“Based on your need you will be able to have that food card, go to the grocery and get food items needed to help you with your academic life, especially around exam time.”
Sandy has aspirations to expand its nutrition programme to benefit not only UWI St Augustine students, but also those studying at the Mona and Cave Hill campuses.
“We are going to work with grocers throughout the region to provide food cards. We will pay for it as the guild of students and we will grant, based on your need, so you can go to the grocery and get food items needed to help you.
“We want to ensure students can access their education with a bit more comfort. We can’t help 100 per cent but can hold your hand and give you the relevant resources needed to help you navigate this new era of learning.”
In an interview with Sunday Newsday, Sophie Healy-Thow, a food security youth activist from Ireland, unpacked the nutritional component, saying food security is “when everyone has equal access to safe and nutritious food which meets dietary requirements.”
“In essence, it’s when you can afford a healthy meal no matter where you’re from or how much money you have in your pockets.”
Tertiary students like Mohammed are not alone in their struggles. According to Healy-Thow, who has a degree in international development and food policy, food insecurity is a global phenomenon that stems from a range of issues.
“What young people have in common all across the globe is the increasing cost of living, fewer job opportunities, increasing mental health issues and an increasing cost of healthy foods and a decreasing cost of unhealthy fast foods and convenience foods.”
“On my campus, we found that most students choose food which is higher in calories, fat and sugar during the day because it’s cheaper and more convenient than healthier food options. We also found that some students don’t even eat during the day because they only have enough money to afford the bus home from campus.”
Healy-Thow said eventually her school’s student union had to open a student food bank, which she said was “a complete success and supplied food to hundreds of students.”
Duraisamy Saravanakumar, UWI professor of plant pathology and head of the food production department at the Faculty of Food and Agriculture, said people underestimate the food insecurity problem locally owing to a lack of awareness, since there have not been any drastic shortages in the availability of food.
“It may be expensive, prices may be increasing, but still there is a supply. People should be made aware of how much money is spent on what items. The information should be made available and people should be educated about the challenge.”
Saravanakumar told Sunday Newsday there are several issues contributing to food insecurity in TT including inconsistent and low levels of agricultural production, poor infrastructural development and lack of long-term plans for disaster-risk reduction, as well as a lack of private investment in the food manufacturing sector.
“Caribbean people need to understand the significance as a region, because food insecurity issues are a threat to reliable, accessible, safe, nutritious and affordable food. A lack of this could lead to poverty, starvation, imbalanced diet, poor health and diseases, and regional instability.”
To encourage healthy food consumption by tertiary students, Saravanakumar said there needs to be strengthened partnership between the health sector, tertiary institutions, line ministries and the food sector to promote healthy lifestyles and local food consumption.
“Start funding of the agricultural projects for tertiary students to involve in innovative production, processing, product development and marketing of the agricultural products to enable them to assist the country in accomplishing food security and help themselves to earn and ensure their safe and nutritious food.”
In addition, he said the government could procure nutritionally-rich local fruits and vegetables and make them available to tertiary students at subsidised prices to fight against food insecurity, more specifically nutritional aspects of food security.