Dietary changes in Trujillo, Peru and contribution to the rise of non-communicable diseases in Trujillo and policy implications
As the 2016 recipient of UC Berkeley’s Center for Global Public Health Reporting Fellowship, my summer research project took me south of the hemisphere to Peru. With the support of the Sarah E. Samuels Scholarship, my photojournalism project in the coastal, urban city of Trujillo captured how dietary changes have created a public health crisis by contributing to the rise of non-communicable diseases such as obesity and type II diabetes. As is the case with nearly all cities around the world, the population of Trujillo is growing. Many of Trujillo’s new residents have migrated from more rural parts of Peru, such as the highlands and the jungle. Upon moving to the urban core, people tend to shift away from an agrarian lifestyle, which consists of doing hard manual labor on a daily basis, to a more sedentary lifestyle. While caloric output radically decreases, caloric input remains high. Oftentimes, caloric intake is even higher in urban settings due to ample access to processed foods and fast food. Residents in Trujillo are bombarded with an overwhelming excess of food. Food vendors are stacked in a line along the street and offer up sweet treats such as mazamorra morada (Peruvian purple corn pudding) or a variation of fried dough. The food is seductive, inexpensive, and far too readily accessible.
I expanded my research to the jungle to explore the origin from where these migrations are coming. This required taking a 3-day boat ride down the Amazon River to reach Iquitos, the largest city in the world not accessible by road. Only 5% of the Peruvian population lives in the Amazonian forest, yet this area makes up 60% of Peru’s land mass. Though rich in lucrative natural resources such as oil and gold, most of the local economy in these rural villages relies on selling goods to passengers when passing boats dock. As our boat stopped to unload cargo such as mandarins and chickens, villagers came storming onto the boats to sell jungle grub. Here I was introduced to an assortment of river fish such as orange-bellied piranhas, variations of cooked bananas, and suri (chubby worms).
Despite stopping at some incredibly remote places, my time in the jungle only confirms that no place in Peru can escape the free market economy; sugar-sweetened beverage companies are ubiquitous. So while most of the people on the boat sold modest protein-based meals and fruits, one could also count on someone coming by with a bucket of soft drinks. I am simultaneously horrified and in awe that places so isolated and lacking basic social services have no shortfall of soft drinks. This observation makes me hypothesize that large fast food chains are arguably not the biggest threat to nutritional health; instead, sugar-sweetened beverage companies are the biggest health hazard of the future. As the accessibility of these beverage companies continues to infiltrate even remote Amazonian communities, it is up to the government- elected by the people- to decide to what degree it wants its country’s future health status to be shaped by this profiteering industry.
To read more about my journey, visit the following posts on my blog: