I’m reminded of a documentary I saw on a man working to distributed iodine-supplement salt in China. Thyroid disorders were very prevelant in the areas the rice was distributed. A tiny amount of iodine added to someones diet can fix all these problems. Free rice with the addition of iodine seemed the perfect way to distribute this dietry supplement.

Apparently some people receiving the free rice didn’t eat it but instead sold it. They believed the rice was not good for their health and tasted funny. Some people just feed it to their animals. Rumours had started to circulate, who knows from where, that the rice was poisonous. Although it seems tragically ignorant for them reject the rice I can understand how history may have taught people not to trust foreigners and to skeptical about any free gifts from them. We always tell children never to accept lollies from strangers. Perhaps if they sold the rice, maybe even with a premium price, it would have gained more acceptance.

In Laos there are many organizations that distribute food in the country. I’m told that in some parts of the countries at certain times of the year there are very low food supplies because you can not grow rice. Most Lao people eat sticky rice. Sticky rice is very expensive to buy in bulk when compared to white rice (the variety you would eat in a Chinese restaurant). However the opposite is true for small quantities, such as a market in Vientiane, where white rice would be more expensive.

I’m not exactly sure why this is true. It might be something to do with the fact that there isn’t much demand for sticky rice outside of Laos, so there’s no one producing large amounts of it for exporting.

Buying sticky rice in bulk might be 2 times more expensive than white rice, possibly even more.

So some development organizations buy white rice rather than sticky rice to save money. There are problem in that many Lao people don’t like or really know how to eat white rice. Unlike sticky rice, after eating white rice they don’t feel full. They may also not really know how to cook white rice. They may also dislike the taste and texture of white rice and it may not go as well with their other types of food they eat.

So sometimes the villagers don’t eat the free rice that’s given to them. They may instead use it as animal feed.

This story highlights to me the problem of poverty and malnutrition not being an engineering problem. Throwing money, resources and rice at the problem won’t necessarily fix it. Like that famous horse analogy, you can take a person white rice but you can’t force them to eat it. I’m reminded of the US army dropping rations in Afghanistan as a relief effort to Afghani population during their war with the Taliban. Apparently the rations contained Western food such as peanut butter. Unfamiliar with this strange food most people chose not to eat it.

Giving people the food that is the most nutritious for them may not always work. They need to be consulted and it has to fit in with their existing diet, otherwise people simply won’t eat it. Americans definitely have the money and resources to have a healthier diet than they currently have, but the fact they choose not to shows that having a healty diet isn’t always people’s number one priority in life.

Another volunteer has been up in Northern Laos working on a Iron Chef like project for the UN. He’s trying to do some cooking education to encourage an improved diet in some villages. He asked his helpers to go to the market and buy a large variety of vegetables. They’re going to have a cook off to try and create some new things, get some new ideas across and hopefully have a delicious meal.

The other problem that occurs when you start giving away food for free is that it lowers the prices of food and hurts the profits of those who grow food to sell to others, usually themselves poor people. For example, if an organisation were to start giving out cows for free this would lower the price of cows and negatively impacts the anyone who already owned some cows. This is not a good thing for them if that cow represented a significant part of their life savings.