Stacey Aiken-Hemming | Effects of COVID-19 on Jamaican diet
Food remains a necessity for the well-being and survival of our population, and the Jamaican agri-food sector and all its stakeholders have automatically assumed the spotlight since COVID-19. More people are eating home-prepared meals, as physical distancing and cost-cutting measures have made dining out and restaurant-prepared foods a distant memory for many. Also, consumer grocery shopping habits had to be adjusted mostly to accommodate curfew and crowd-control limits.
Like any crisis, the pandemic has created a surge in innovative services and new offerings for consumers. As a result, online shopping and home delivery options have emerged at a rate never seen before. To adjust to this new normal, Jamaicans are being forced to rethink and do things differently. As a result, the food marketplace has become more popular, with opportunities for new and existing small businesses, increased marketing by big players in the industry, and a general reshuffle of government food distribution channels. With no end to COVID-19 yet in sight, it is difficult to predict the long-term impact on Jamaica’s food landscape.
Efforts to keep the local agricultural and food sectors afloat appear to be driven mostly by financial and trade considerations. However, given the burden on our health system, it would be short-sighted if public health, safety, and food security were not major factors as well. Health-promoting initiatives must take precedence over less healthy ones, regardless of perceived cost benefits or financial incentives of the latter. Getting fresh, healthy food to Jamaicans must become a priority focus in all sectors.
During this lockdown period, mealtime has taken on a whole new meaning. Even the least food-literate has been compelled to acquire skills on how to shop for, cook or prepare meals. Online searches for cooking classes saw a major spike, though offering no guarantee that meals would be cheaper, taste better or be more healthful. For some, the choice of eating wholesome foods was an easy one. Cooking at home is often associated with eating healthier meals and fewer calories. As we continue to deal with the challenges of COVID-19 we must all make the effort to secure healthy, safe, and nutritious foods. It is crucial that the disparities among vulnerable groups, whose usual food acquisition channels have likely been disrupted, be minimised.
To date, there remains no proven cure or vaccine for COVID-19. So we must continue to take the necessary precautions and maintain a healthy immune system. However, Jamaica’s nutritional status does not appear to be in good shape. The most recent Jamaica Health and Lifestyle Survey indicated that one in two Jamaican adults is overweight or obese, and women remain more at risk, with two-thirds being affected. Children are also becoming increasingly overweight as obesity prevalence in adolescent boys almost doubled between 2010 and 2017 and increased by almost 50 per cent in girls during the same period. Obesity is considered the biggest risk factor for severe illness from COVID-19, and increases the chances of dying from infection with COVID-19. By focusing on boosting healthy nutrition, we may secure some level of cushioning against the effects of the virus, but, if left unaddressed, we face unprecedented harm to our health system.
The preponderance of unhealthy, processed and ultra-processed pre-packaged foods flooding the food market each day is suggestive that the Jamaican diet may be following this pattern. Surveys prior to COVID-19 showed only a small percentage of the Jamaican population met the minimum recommended intake for fruits and vegetable. Only four out of 10 Jamaicans reported eating vegetables at least twice per day, and three out of 10 ate fruits two or more times per day. Healthy foods, such as fresh fruit and vegetables, have always been available, and eating for health is a lifestyle choice. Children must also be taught healthy eating habits from early, as dietary habits and exposures formed at a young age often follow into adulthood. Developing and setting goals for healthy habits may take time, but should be considered a high return investment in health protection and disease prevention.
During this pandemic, the speed of convenience, heightened marketing and fear of crowded spaces could make ultra-processed, ready-to-eat and ready-to-heat foods and beverages a very attractive choice. However, most consumers are probably unaware that a large proportion of the pre-packaged foods and beverages available in the local retail space contain high amounts of known problem nutrients (namely, sodium, added sugars and/or unhealthy fats) and other questionable non-nutritive ingredients (e.g. colourants, artificial flavours, fillers, and sweeteners). Many of these concerning nutrients are sufficiently excessive that they exceed recommended health threshold levels and would require front-of-package warning labels. In just a few months, COVID-19 has highlighted the dangers of these underlying dietary risks. Now more than ever, Jamaican consumers deserve the right to know what is in their food.
The primary purpose of food labels is to educate the public about the characteristics of a product. Currently, local and regional food label guidelines are extremely outdated by not mandating packages carry nutritional information. Generally, food label rules and regulations can differ for each country, and adapting products to suit each market can be challenging. However, Jamaican foods are found all over the world, suggesting that local manufacturers have ensured their product contents and labels meet the health and safety standards of several other countries. Jamaicans deserve similar rights. It is crucial that the Government remain steadfast in its responsibility to assure these rights to safe and healthy food.
The Ministry of Industry, Commerce, Agriculture and Fisheries (MICAF) has responded commendably by increasing the promotion and distribution of fresh local produce during the pandemic. The ministry ramped up promotions of its agricultural sector and encouraged Jamaicans to choose more local foods for consumption. The initiative reported overwhelming success in supplying farm-fresh produce that was affordable, convenient, and accessible to many consumers.
Other remarkable initiatives by MICAF include a revival of 4-H Club activities to spark young people’s interest in agriculture, organising community farmer’s markets, and promotions of family backyard farming. Stimulating the local agriculture sector through these creative means is a double-win by preventing economic losses and positively impacting the health of the population.
Hopefully, the focus on prioritising consumer’s access to fresh, local produce remains a long-term objective of this ministry, as it will surely strengthen our foundation towards building a healthier and more economically viable society.
The benefits of having locally grown produce are numerous. Fresh fruits and vegetables are an important part of a healthy diet, because they contain essential vitamins, minerals and fibre. As a main food group, they carry protective nutrients that could readily reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke, and prevent some types of cancer and a myriad of other health problems. Eating a variety of fruits and non-starchy or leafy vegetables is also helpful in keeping COVID appetites in check.
Evidence is in favour of consuming more plant-based foods for improving health and preventing disease.
• Incorporate fruits, vegetables and peas/beans at every meal. By introducing these at each meal, the more habitual and familiar they will become. Consider replacing a less healthy side dish or dessert with a salad or sliced fruit.
• Give your family a choice. The wide variety of fresh fruits, vegetables and ground produce available guarantees that there is something for everyone!
• Eat healthy on the go. Apples, bananas, oranges, carrots, tomatoes and other fruits and vegetables are pre-packaged by nature and easy to enjoy on the go.
Avoid the snack trap. Keep fresh fruit and vegetables on your kitchen counter or your desk at work, so that you can reach for a healthy snack when you are hungry.
• Grab-and-go snacks. Consider preparing fruits and vegetables beforehand. Peel and cut fruits and vegetables into smaller bite-size pieces and place in plain sight in the refrigerator so they are easier for you or your children to grab as a snack.
• Be creative, especially with children and the elderly. Bring meals to life with fruits and vegetables. They add colour, taste and texture, which are important to the young and old alike.
It is still possible to consume a healthy diet during these difficult times. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle during the COVID-19 pandemic is especially critical, and it is a choice we must all make individually and on a national level.
Stacey Aiken-Hemming is a nutritionist and research assistant at the Caribbean Institute for Health Research (CAIHR), The University of the West Indies. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.