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What’s for dinner?

February 14, 2013

Meet Student Sustainability Blogger Emily Smith van Beek

By Emily Smith van Beek

Sustainability Blogger

I’ve been a vegetarian for 15 years now. Coming to Mexico, I heard my vegetarian lifestyle would be an inconvenience. Being vegetarian here is almost unheard of (or so I was told). 

To prepare, in our Spanish language class, we were taught sensitive ways of denying meat during community visits and family stays. To eat meat in this country is a luxury, and I couldn’t quite convey the cultural differences of not appreciating meat. I thought my choices would be limited to beef and chicken. I wondered what on earth I would eat.

My expectations were thrown out the window when we got to Mexico. San Cristobal, Chiapas, caters to an international tourist market. While there are numerous traditional Mexican restaurants that serve enchiladas, tamales, and quesadillas, there is also a plethora of other options. Since being here, I’ve had everything from Lebanese and Italian to American-fare and street food. I was happiest when I found side-by-side organic and vegan restaurants. 

So what does it mean to eat organic, and what are the benefits? Organic food is produced without using pesticides or chemical fertilizers, which alter foods to make them bigger, grow faster, and last longer. Being a vegetarian and eating organic foods are fantastic for oneself and our planet. You have healthier skin because of higher water and antioxidant-based diet and a better digestion system from eating plant-based foods that are high in fiber. Having a toxin-free diet means you could live three to six years longer than the average meat eater. 

On our third night in Mexico, I went to a fantastic vegetarian/organic restaurant in San Cristobal, called Casa del Pan. In addition to being a restaurant, it also educates the city on the benefits of using local, organic produce. Casa del Pan is trying to encourage communities, in conjunction with the socially responsible Zapatistas, to create peaceful communities by going back to traditional farming methods and incorporating healthy organic produce into rural Mexican diets.  They also advocate on behalf of fair trade, versus free trade products, to ensure producers are not exploited. 

Casa del Pan’s main priority for their customers is health. They have a rooftop garden where they grow the majority of vegetables served on the menu. The menu consists of all homemade, organic, and whole grain foods. 

Since The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed in 1994, Chiapas has been an international forerunner in the production of organic foods. However, the logistics of the free trade agreement are not equal for all players. While rich in biodiversity, Chiapas is dominated by large-scale production (sweat-shop style) agriculture, catering to the organic demands of North America. The producers are not reaping the benefits.

The largely rural province of Chiapas has among the country’s highest rates of malnutrition and lowest rates of education and income. While organic foods are important to instill healthy dieting and prevent diseases, those messages are not being communicated at a community level for sustainable farming for Mexican peoples. Organic products cost three to five times more than traditionally produced crops. For a family that makes less than $10 day Canadian, it is unattainable. 

Organic farming is also more labour intensive. This could mean that for a family who decides to go the organic route, they need more hands on the farm. In addition, organic products have a lower shelf time for consumption. This factor makes it harder for impoverished families to travel from their rural communities to have an optimized selling time for their produce in the city centre. 

While I enjoyed the meal at Casa del Pan and it helped to keep me healthy and happy, I am acutely aware that the prices are higher than what a typical agrarian family could afford. 

Adios amigos,