Indonesia: Starvation Amid Abundance

Indonesia: Starvation Amid Abundance

The middle of the morning food market in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia is perhaps an odd place to begin a story about malnutrition.

Baskets of fresh fish in beautiful hues of silver and blue line the barely-more-than-one-person-wide footpath through the temporary stalls that pop up here each day. Chicken — pre-roasted or raw, your choice — is snipped apart with scissors in the middle of the hustle and bustle. Eels squirm in plastic bags twisted tightly at the top. Rambutan and Dragon Fruit and Mangosteen are arranged in newsprint-lined baskets at nearly every stand. Tiny bananas in giant bunches are hawked for a few cents here, a few more there. Eggs, unwashed and unrefrigerated, in every hue of brown, white and green, teeter atop flatbed trucks. Buni berries and Snakeskin fruit and Papaya of both local and commercial varieties can be had at every turn.

Abundance is everywhere; bright, beautiful, fragrant, and beckoning. And it doesn’t cost much… by our standards.

The first morning I went to the market, just a few days after arriving on the island last month, I came home with enough food to last the better half of a week and several offerings to tuck away in our villa’s temples for under ten American dollars. But here, ten American dollars is a lot.

Though Indonesia as a country has made great strides in the past two decades — halving the number of people living in poverty since the late 1990’s — the World Bank estimates that more than half of all Indonesians still live either below or dangerously near to the poverty line. Which is set at an income of just over $22 per person per month. So, while I was putting together produce-heavy meals — loading up on potassium and vitamin C with bananas and tangerines — many local families can’t afford that kind of diversity of ingredients in quantities that amount to anything more than a glorified condiment.

They rely on rice, often fried, to fill bellies and rack up calories. In this way Indonesia, and especially the island of Bali, is different than many other developing countries. Calories and nutrition are often closely linked in assessments of food insecurity around the world. A lack of nutrition usually goes hand-in-hand with an overall lack of calories, even where we know a homogenous diet is contributing to malnutrition in a region. But here calories are cheap and abundant for all but the very poorest citizens in remote rural areas. Calories and nutrition are not tied to one another so closely here. Between rice and palm sugar sweetener most Indonesians get enough raw energy from their diet each day. But those calories are too often empty. Rice — even strains specially bred for higher vitamin content — and sugar can’t provide all a person’s needed nutrients for a day, let alone a lifetime.

In fact,an estimated one third of Indonesian children under the age of five are stunted. Which means not only are they smaller than they should be for their age, they’re also at risk of compromised brain development — a complication of poor nutrition that has long term ramifications including reduced economic productivity at adulthood.

To combat this, the U.S. has historically channeled a meager amount of our foreign aid budget into Indonesia and reaped outsized results for the investment. Economically secure, educated, and healthy global neighbors make us safer and more prosperous at home, after all. Today, despite Indonesians’ on-going struggle with poverty, they outrank their neighbors in many measures of development, including two areas where we’ve invested in the past: literacy and prenatal care. But there are no guarantees in development, and the questions swirling around the U.S. budget for foreign aid are more urgent this year than they have been in my adult lifetime, and perhaps ever.

And so, standing in the middle of the market hubbub as the sun climbed over the rooflines around me, knowing the threats to our nation’s development budget on the table in Washington, it was hard not to get lost not in the abundance of this place, but in the uncertainty of the future and the starvation both literal and figurative it may bring.

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